Writing the Prison in African Literature

by Rachel Knighton (Author)
Monographs X, 202 Pages

Table Of Content


Rachel Knighton


About the author

Rachel Anna Aisha Knighton completed her PhD in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, for which she was awarded a Graduate Research Scholarship by Girton College. Her PhD research forms the basis of this book.

About the book

This book examines a selection of prison memoirs by five renowned African writers: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ruth First, Wole Soyinka, Nawal El Saadawi and Jack Mapanje. Detained across the continent from the 1960s onwards due to their writing and political engagement, each writer’s memoir forms a crucial yet often overlooked part of their wider literary work. The author analyses the varied and unique narrative strategies used to portray the prison, formulating a theory of prison memoir as genre that reads the texts alongside postcolonial, trauma, life-writing and prison theory. The book also illustrates the importance of these memoirs in the telling of their historical moment, from apartheid South Africa to post-independence Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt and Malawi.

This eBook can be cited

This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.



I would like to thank my PhD Supervisor, Dr Christopher Warnes, for his unrelenting support throughout my work on this project while at Cambridge. Chris was so kind as to complete numerous references on my behalf, as well as providing invaluable feedback on my writing. His belief in the importance of my research enabled it to become what it is today, and for this I am very grateful. The tutors at Girton College were just as instrumental in my academic growth, and I will never forget the moment I read of my successful funding application to become a Girton Graduate Scholar.

While at Cambridge, many more figures stand out, and I am honoured to count these names among those who have advised me during the PhD process. Malachi McIntosh, Priyamvada Gopal and Edward Wilson-Lee in the Faculty of English have been excellent readers of various chapters at different stages of writing. John Lonsdale, Tim Cribb, George Karekwaivanane, Emma Hunter and Ruth Watson from the Centre of African Studies have been of equal help and inspiration.

Going back in time slightly further, I would not be where I am today without the assistance, during my MA in Postcolonial Literature at Leeds, of Clare Barker, John McLeod and my MA dissertation supervisor, the brilliant Brendon Nicholls. Brendon’s role in my academic progress culminated in his position as external examiner for my PhD, and I hold his beautifully scripted comments amongst my most prized. His encouragement, and that of Robert MacFarlane as my PhD examiner at Cambridge, nurtured the seeds in my mind of turning the thesis into a book.

It was as an undergraduate in the Department of English and Related Literature at York, that I was able to reconcile my love of literature with my interest in Africa. Anna Bernard’s course on ‘Resistance Writing’ initiated this passion; as did talks with the wonderful Zoe Norridge, who has been a constant support ever since. I can’t miss out the overarching presence of←ix | x→ David Attwell, whose affability and renown as a South Africanist rooted within me early on that my interest meant something.

During a fieldwork trip to Cape Town in April 2015 to contextualise my work, Daniel Roux, David Johnson and Hedley Twidle provided excellent company. I will not easily forget arriving at Albie Sachs’ house on the beach to interview him, either!

Overall, I feel immensely blessed to have encountered all of these incredible people who have, no doubt, helped shape my mind and my prose into what it is today. It has been a very fulfilling process in turning the thesis into the book as it now stands. For this opportunity, I thank the publishers at Peter Lang, whose office in Oxford I passed so often, quite oblivious to the interesting work that was going on inside.

Finally, this book has to be dedicated to the writers whose immense work gave rise to the subject in the first place: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ruth First, Wole Soyinka, Nawal El Saadawi and Jack Mapanje. Your writing was of constant succour and engagement to me in the numerous libraries I frequented as a solitary graduate! Of course, behind the writing lies a greater commitment to the belief in literature than I can ever imagine. I hope that my criticism goes some way in sparking further interest in prison memoir.←x | 1→


African autobiography has been, among literary theorists, a site of contention and under exploration. French theorist Georges Gusdorf, writing in the 1950s, argued that ‘autobiography is not to be found outside our cultural area’.1 According to him, it is a genre that ‘expresses a concern peculiar to Western man, a concern that has been of good use in his systematic conquest of the universe and that he has communicated to men of other cultures’.2 Autobiography, Gusdorf continues, is a form of ‘intellectual colonizing’ established by European colonialists, which is then employed by colonial subjects in an unnatural and mimetic way.3 This early theorisation of the genre as represented by Gusdorf illustrates the restricted scope of autobiographical studies to that point: its failure to register a diversity of autobiographical forms arising from a range of global contexts.

That autobiographies written outside of Europe exist in their multiplicity counters the assertion that they can only be found in a singular cultural sphere. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, in their informative guide to the study of life narratives, situate autobiography as ‘a term for a particular practice of life narrative that emerged in the Enlightenment and has become canonical in the West’.4 Considering the indebtedness of the term ‘autobiography’, Smith and Watson employ the expansive term ‘life writing’ or ‘life narrative’ as a distinct literary practice, in order to broaden the genre’s boundaries.5 Their work advances ‘[t]he expanded←1 | 2→ concept of autobiographical acts’ as they delineate the multiple dimensions of autobiographical subjectivity and recognise its geographic variety.6 ‘[The] widespread use of self-representation in both preliterate and literate non-Western cultures contradicts the allegation of an earlier generation of literary critics that “autobiography” is a uniquely Western form’, Smith and Watson assert.7 In this study, I have chosen to use the un-hyphenated term ‘life writing’ in place of autobiography so as to recognise that the memoirs I address are non-European in provenance, and therefore open outwards, and challenge, Gusdorf’s early and exclusive notions of the genre. Whilst recognising the significance of these terms, I do, however, employ the term autobiography as a descriptor of the genre in order to position prison memoir in this field.

James Olney was the first theorist to attempt to outline the distinctive features of life writing in Africa. His work goes some way in differentiating it from its European counterparts. In Tell Me Africa: An Approach to African Literature (1973), Olney argues that ‘African literature is unquestionably different from the literature of the Western world, primarily because the mode of cultural consciousness that it expresses is a different one’, requiring a new ‘approach’.8 Olney’s stance is problematic. Differentiating an African perspective from the European, he adopts a reductive and essentialist framework in his analysis of cultural consciousness. Regarding life writing, the concept of the collective, he proposes, is central to this vision as he ‘considers autobiography from Africa less as an individual phenomenon than as a social one’.9 Olney reads his selected texts anthropologically, overlooking the instability of a genre that is based upon individual subjectivity, mnemonic capability and authorial capacity. His book is characterised by its historical or ethnographic approach to African literature, seeking to articulate what←2 | 3→ autobiographical texts tell of the social, rather than how they contribute to the literary study of life writing.10

Olney’s work on African life writing does provide some useful insight into certain prevalent features of the genre. His claim, however broad, that he ‘considers autobiography from Africa less as an individual phenomenon than as a social one’ is instructive.11 Beginning with a reference to Jomo Kenyatta’s autobiography, Facing Mount Kenya (1938), Olney writes that ‘the dominant characteristic of the African world, in contrast to the Western world, is its unity, its indivisible coherence’.12 This statement exemplifies Olney’s tendency to generalise. More helpfully, however, it highlights the significance of the concept of unity – specifically, in this case, as a collectivising sense of nationalism – to certain autobiographical texts. Considering Kenyatta’s role as a leading nationalist figure in Kenya during the decolonisation period, becoming, finally, Kenya’s first independent president, the stress on unity as a rhetorical-political tool in his memoir is unsurprising. As Olney makes clear later on in his work, autobiographies in Africa are often shaped by a political intent, particularly when published during the critical moment of decolonisation.

Olney’s study articulates a variety of the functions of early African life writing and its divergence from European conceptions of the genre. Despite its limitations, Tell Me Africa does lay the groundwork for further study of this subject. African life writing did begin to be considered in greater depth by a number of ‘third wave’ autobiographical theorists; a distinction established by Smith and Watson. The designation of theories into waves begins with the first wave of early theorists, notably Georg Misch and his A History of Autobiography in Antiquity, first published in its original German in 1907. Misch’s focus on ancient Greek, Roman and Middle Eastern autobiographies is, critically, an internationalised stance that subsequent theorists such as Gusdorf in the second wave chose to neglect. Olney’s work bridges the divide between second and third wave←3 | 4→ theory through his emphasis on Africa. His work signifies a form of progression, in both chronology and theme, that anticipates the third wave.

Third wave autobiographical theory, referring to theory produced in the last forty years or so, is not exclusively postcolonial. It includes theorists such as Paul John Eakin, Philippe Lejeune and Paul de Man, who I will refer to presently. Regarding the relevance of third wave theory to the study of African life writing, Roger Berger, in his informative article entitled ‘Decolonizing African Autobiography’, charts the rise of the third wave movement, defining it as ‘an approach that attempts to recuperate autobiography by reconciling socially constructed discourse with self-liberationist agency or by conflating the postmodern with the postcolonial’.13 Life writing, from African and other postcolonial contexts, is therefore read by a number of critics, from Barbara Harlow to Bart Moore-Gilbert, as shall be seen, as reactive and anticolonial. Their work collectively forms a theoretical perspective that challenges Gusdorf and Olney’s tendency to overlook the possibilities of forms of autonomous self-expression in diverse cultural contexts.

This more recent ‘wave’ of theory has engaged in greater depth with postcolonial life writing and its relation to preceding theorisations of autobiography. Berger writes that third wave critics ‘retain the post-structuralist critique of a unified subjectivity’ while ‘valorizing the liberating aspects of autobiography’.14 Third wave critics therefore aim to advance earlier definitions of autobiography by notable theorists such as Gusdorf and, later, Philippe Lejeune. Gusdorf, for example, asserts that ‘the autobiographer strains toward a complete and coherent expression of his entire destiny’, emphasising the clarity and coherence of the singularly masculine narrative subject.15 Lejeune, writing in the 1980s, is known for his theorisation of the ‘autobiographical pact’, whereby ‘[i]n order for there to be autobiography […], the author, the narrator, and the protagonist must be identical’.16←4 | 5→ While this argument is an accepted principle of autobiography, Lejeune’s further claims of the genre leave room for dispute. Defining autobiography as a ‘[r]etrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality’, Lejeune’s rather clinical conception precludes any space for complication or deviation.17 Gillian Whitlock, in her book on postcolonial life narratives, is helpful in problematising Lejeune. The categories proposed by ‘a specific Enlightenment archetype of selfhood’, she contends, privilege ‘the rational, sovereign subject that is conceived as western, gendered male, and […] racially white’.18 Whitlock subverts this theory through her reading of a diversity of perspectives within testimonial narratives. This subversion is extended through the current study of prison memoir, where unstable, decentred, non-white and female stances are represented.

Lejeune, like Gusdorf before him, emphasises the separation of European and non-European autobiography. Lejeune sets out to ‘define autobiography’, ‘clarify[ing]’ the ‘very terms of the problematic of the genre’.19 ‘[T]his definition’, he writes, ‘does not claim to cover more than a period of two centuries (since 1770) and deals only with European literature’.20 ‘[T]his does not mean’, he continues, ‘that the existence of personal literature before 1770 or outside Europe must be denied, but simply that our way of thinking about autobiography today becomes anachronistic or not very pertinent outside this area’.21 Unlike Gusdorf, Lejeune recognises the use and manipulation of the genre by writers outside Europe. While taking seriously cultural difference, however, he continues to perpetuate the divisive and binaristic separation between Western and non-Western autobiographical forms that characterised Gusdorf. As part of the ‘third wave’ of theorists, Lejeune’s work restricts itself from considering the←5 | 6→ multiple autobiographical perspectives that emerged contemporaneously. Smith and Watson highlight the distinctive postcolonial intervention to the genre, where writers from ‘diverse global locations’ produce texts that ‘propose, constitute, and reframe alternatives to an individual self’, challenging entrenched notions.22

Isaac Ndlovu’s more recent work on African prison writing exemplifies the pursuit of a ‘postcolonial rereading’ of these foundational autobiographical theorists. Ndlovu provides a productive recasting of Gusdorf’s notion of the culturally specific existence of autobiography, arguing for the impact of particular contextual pressures on the autobiographical subject. He also questions Lejeune’s clearly delineated definition of autobiography as quoted above. For Ndlovu, ‘[n]eat definitions […] disregard the polysemic and polyvalent nature of the constitution of cultural processes such as the selves’.23 He adheres more closely with Paul John Eakin’s argument, which contends that ‘autobiographical truth is not fixed but an evolving content in an intricate process of self-discovery and self-creation’.24 Ndlovu examines three prison memoirs by a selection of African writers along these, more flexible, lines. His particular focus and critical intervention is the impact that imprisonment has on the narrative self.

The complexities inherent in notions of subjectivity or selfhood have themselves been a contention of autobiographical theory. Smith and Watson affirm that ‘radical challenges to the notion of unified selfhood’ took place in the early twentieth century, disrupting straightforward designations of autobiography.25 In addition to Eakin and his examination of autobiography as self-invention, Paul de Man, also writing in the 1980s, argues for the self-determination of the genre.26 ‘We assume’, he muses, ‘that life produces the autobiography […] but can we not suggest […] that←6 | 7→ the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life’.27 The difficulty of verifying the true nature of selfhood in autobiography is reflected in wider, interdisciplinary discussions on subjectivity. Dan Zahavi’s book is of particular insight, bridging philosophical and scientific research on the subject. Covering different notions of the self and the ways it is shaped or made manifest, including through life story, Zahavi argues that ‘there is a minimal sense of self present whenever there is self awareness’.28 Experience, Zahavi clarifies, is central to gaining self-awareness.29 One means of the experiential nature of selfhood is via discourse; Smith and Watson highlight the importance of language in the identification of a subject.30 The ineffability of selfhood and its construction through language are vital considerations here, where the narrative self should not be taken for granted, but understood as conscious representation.

In terms of the theorisation of the particular qualities of postcolonial life writing, two recent book publications have marked a turning point in advancing the field. David Huddart’s Postcolonial Theory and Autobiography (2008) is useful in highlighting the confluence of postcolonial theory and autobiographical theory. Of the former, he writes that ‘[p]ostcolonial theory does not always think about selves in a way that fits the discourse of autobiography’.31 Similarly, with regards to the latter, Huddart argues for the need for a ‘postcolonial questioning’ of Western autobiography.32 His study is very much revisionist, rereading or calling for the need of a non-Eurocentric theoretical intervention:

[S]o the genre has its canon, its claims about the construction of the modern subject, and all of this institutionalised authority has tended to exclude any other←7 | 8→ way of imagining life-writing, for example forms that give expression to collective subjects.33

Like Smith and Watson before him, Huddart draws attention to the restricted canonisation of traditional autobiographical theory.34 Building on Olney, he also alludes to the significance of the collective in exemplifying a postcolonial departure from normative conceptions of the individuated autobiographical self. Giving currency to the label ‘life-writing’, Huddart uses it as a signifier of differentiation from autobiography, a term that ‘privileges one particular way of writing a life, a way that for many critics is simultaneously too abstract, too masculine and Western’.35 Huddart’s project is essentially one of inclusion, demanding a new vocabulary for analysing postcolonial life writing.

Bart Moore-Gilbert’s pioneering Postcolonial Life-Writing: Culture, Politics and Self-Representation (2009) advances many of Huddart’s claims of the genre. The book provides a comprehensive overview of the ‘distinctive properties of postcolonial life-writing as a branch of auto/biographical literatures’.36 Moore-Gilbert is critical of terminology. Like Huddart, Smith and Watson, he chooses to use the label ‘life-writing’ over autobiography. He also clarifies the significance of ‘postcolonial’: ‘By postcolonial in relation to life-writing, I mean work which recognises the impact of colonialism […] in the constitution of the auto/biographical subjectivity of the colonised’.37 His subdivided use of ‘auto/biographical’, here, denotes a comprehension of the slippages of the genre, where writing about the self necessarily includes an element of distancing, shaping and potential fictionalisation, thereby blurring the boundaries between several generic categorisations. This style of critique and close attention to detail is extended throughout the text, reinforcing Moore-Gilbert’s compulsion to create an alternative theoretical framework for postcolonial life writing.←8 | 9→

Moore-Gilbert is the first critic to theorise the major features of this genre. Like Huddart, he begins by underlining the ‘need for a general account of postcolonial life-writing’, and goes on to map its dominant characteristics through the analysis of a number of autobiographical texts.38 Moore-Gilbert provides a useful introductory summary of the ‘movements’ in autobiographical studies, glossing figures such as Gusdorf, Lejeune and Olney. He then moves onto the work that has already been done in the postcolonial sphere, recalling Huddart, for instance. Moore-Gilbert’s most important influences, however, are the ‘feminist interventions in Auto/biographical Studies’, from which he constructs the terms of his own study.39 ‘[F]eminist critics provide templates for defining what is sui generis about its postcolonial equivalents’, he argues, paralleling postcolonial and feminist rereadings in their subversion and deconstruction of established autobiographical principles. There are ‘three distinct areas’ that Moore-Gilbert considers in relation to postcolonial life writing: the thematics of subjectivity, issues of form and questions surrounding the social function and cultural politics of life writing.40

Each of Moore-Gilbert’s conceptualisations of postcolonial life writing are important to this study of prison memoir. Regarding the thematics of subjectivity, he builds on feminist critics like Smith and Watson, who examine, in their work, ‘models of dispersed and decentred subjectivity’ as opposed to those of a ‘sovereign, centred and unified selfhood’.41 The narrative subject may be fragmented; it may also be destabilised or impacted upon by social pressures. Moore-Gilbert places particular emphasis on the ‘essentially social and relational’ nature of the self in postcolonial life writing, re-iterating Olney:

[T]he relationality of auto/biographical subjectivity […] is particularly obvious in the writing of self-conscious nationalists, where the author may seek to make himself representative of, or spokesman for, the collective to which he belongs.42←9 | 10→

This emphasis on the collective renders Olney’s uneasy definition clearer, where Moore-Gilbert refers to it in the explicit context of a literal, social collective that becomes politicised through its representation or resurgence. This form of collective, extending from the historical to the contemporary, is a dominant aspect of several of the prison memoirs to be examined here. The notion of the collective is, indeed, a feature of the genre of prison memoir that critics working on this area have stressed most. As political commentators and activists, many of the writers I discuss fall into the category of ‘self-conscious nationalists’, whose social role is inseparable from personal experience.

The distinct form and cultural politics of postcolonial life writing is significant. Of form, Moore-Gilbert argues that ‘inter-generic traffic and experimentation characterizes postcolonial life-writing’.43 He discusses the co-existence of historiography and fiction with autobiography as products of the unstable and multi-faceted nature of postcolonial identity. He describes ‘the essentially constructed and provisional nature of postcolonial identity as a result of the erasure or disruption of foundational affiliations by colonialism’, referring specifically to travel writing as another branch of autobiography.44 In terms of its cultural politics and social function, postcolonial life writing is presented as ‘part of a political strategy to produce change’.45 This is on account, he contends, of the political disempowerment of many postcolonial societies, where incarceration and exile are prevalent experiences.46 Writers are therefore portrayed as responding to these systems of power and sources of conflict in their work; a point that is pertinent to the understanding of prison memoir as it relates to the wider genre of autobiography.

The use of the term ‘postcolonial’ in both Moore-Gilbert’s and my own work requires clarification. Moore-Gilbert proposes a broad theorisation of the genre of ‘postcolonial life-writing’ that encompasses literature arising from a multiplicity of postcolonial contexts. This includes texts by writers←10 | 11→ from formerly colonised areas such as the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Despite this diversity of literary examples, Moore-Gilbert’s work does not suggest that all postcolonial life writing is the same. Merely that, on account of their colonial legacy, many of the texts have features in common that accumulate to foreground the general traits of postcolonial life writing and its distinctiveness in the wider autobiographical arena. The structures arising from colonialism that impact upon these autobiographies include, but are not confined to, the foregrounding of the political, the centrality of social conflict and liberation, the complexity of identity and the question of voice and authority.

Regarding the centrality of the postcolonial to this project, my focus is more located. I examine African literature written in the postcolonial period. The historical sense of the term is therefore paramount. The prison, as will be illustrated, is a legacy of colonialism whose use after decolonisation represents an important indicator of continued political conflict and hegemony despite independence. The prison memoirs included in this study offer insight into this precise historical moment, and are therefore all attributable to this periodising definition of the postcolonial. The wider resonance of postcoloniality does, also, have pertinence here, which is why I have chosen to use the term ‘postcolonial’ consistently throughout, rather than hyphenate it to signify the solely historical. Political imprisonment in an African context is a postcolonial condition. It speaks to a widespread form of oppression experienced by many from the 1960s to the present. The prison memoirs in question communicate this experience, intervening against their respective regimes. Considering the interventionary nature of the postcolonial – Neil Lazarus quotes from Homi Bhabha that ‘“postcolonial” is a fighting term, a theoretical weapon which “intervene[s]” in existing debates’ – the memoirs equally represent an intervention in the literary sphere.47 They establish prison memoir as a prevalent genre of life writing. The prison memoirs also advance the significance of the genre to the critical recognition of forms of life writing in Africa.←11 | 12→

Prison Memoir as Genre

Prison memoir has not been discussed by Moore-Gilbert and other autobiographical theorists in full detail thus far. This is with the exception of Ioan Davis’ Writers in Prison (1990), an expansive work that ‘attempt[s] to connect the actual products of prison writing with […] [a] sense of how to read it’.48 This text is an important starting point for any scholar working on the genre, yet its broadness and predominantly European focus has made its applicability to this study limited. In the field of postcolonial life writing, Moore-Gilbert makes only passing reference to prison memoir, which he classifies as a ‘sub-form’ of the larger genre.49 He does, however, gesture towards the prevalence of ‘postcolonial prison autobiography’, referring in passing to Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka as prime examples of imprisoned writers.50 Smith and Watson go further in enunciating the importance of prison memoir to postcolonial experience. As a ‘reinterpretation’ of autobiography, this form ‘has been an important means of asserting cultural agency for postcolonial subjects’.51 For Smith and Watson, this agency lies mainly in the individual: ‘prison narratives […] record the struggles of incarcerated subjects with dehumanising systems and the forging of identity in resistance’.52 This focus, while providing a useful starting point, under-emphasises the socio-political bearing of imprisonment, which impacts the narrative subject just as much as concerns for the self.

In order to theorise prison memoir as a genre of life writing, the difference between autobiography and memoir needs clarification. Autobiography has been theorised, however problematically, by the aforementioned critics: from Misch to Gusdorf and Olney, Lejeune to de Man and Eakin. Postcolonial life writing finds its theorists in Smith and Watson,←12 | 13→ Moore-Gilbert and Huddart. Autobiography as a whole is therefore multi-faceted and continually shifting. Misch establishes this early on, asserting that ‘[a]utobiography is unlike any form of literary composition. Its boundaries are more fluid and less definable’.53 Memoir, as an autobiographical form, is distinguished for the following qualities:

[T]he writers of memoirs […] introduce themselves in the main as merely observers of the events and activities of which they write, and if they join the active participants it is only as minor parts. What they tell of their own lives serves to explain how it was that they became involved in contemporary happenings or became witnesses of them.54

Misch takes the emphasis almost entirely off the personal in memoir, defining it for its explication of a certain moment or event. This contrasts against the autobiographer, ‘who concerns himself with such things only in so far as is necessary for the understanding of his life story’.55 Misch’s interpretation of memoir is narrow and remains unelaborated on in his book. While memoir’s autobiographical quality – its concern for the narrative subject – is intrinsic, his affirmation of the centrality of the wider scope of the text reinforces the primacy of politics, imprisonment and collectivity to the concerns of prison memoir.

Barbara Harlow’s chapter on the ‘Prison Memoirs of Political Detainees’ in her seminal text, Resistance Literature (1987), is innovative in theorising the prominent aspects of political prison memoir. This genre represents, according to her, a category of resistance literature. It is therefore inflected by an oppositional drive that is the product of a wider ‘liberation struggle’ or ‘resistance movement’ pertaining not just to the fact of imprisonment, but also to the conditions of a wider social sphere.56 As a result, Harlow contends that a central concern of prison memoir is its stress, once again, on the collective:←13 | 14→

Their own experience of prison, as recounted in the memoirs of political detainees, is conditioned by the ideal of that larger collective struggle in which they wrote. The nature of that struggle both sustains their resistance in prison and informs the composition and structure of their prison memoirs.57

Prison memoir is presented as differing from normative conceptions of autobiography and accompanying expectations of coherence and chronology. Harlow clarifies this further through comparison to preceding theory: ‘The formal identity of author/narrator/main character which underwrites Lejeune’s “autobiographical pact” is rewritten in the prison cell as a political analysis of a larger social body’.58 This emphasis on the significance of both the political and the collective predates and also refines Moore-Gilbert’s stress on the relational and social function of life writing. Harlow clarifies the terms of postcolonial life writing, distilling them to speak specifically for prison memoir.

There are two further literary critics who engage extensively with the genre of prison memoir in their work. Daniel Roux and Paul Gready analyse South African texts as an area that has received most of the criticism on African prison writing so far. Roux and Gready both confirm and consolidate Harlow’s main hypotheses, relating her theory to particular memoirs. Gready perceives writing, in a similar way to Harlow, as a form of resistance. His book, Writing as Resistance: Life Stories of Imprisonment, Exile, and Homecoming from Apartheid South Africa (2003), ‘focuses on the transformative nature of resistance, particularly autobiographical narratives, as a means through which the opponents of apartheid retained and regained agency and power’.59 Gready emphasises two aspects of prison writing, which refers, in this study, specifically to prison memoir: its ‘political function’ as an instance of vocal or textual assertion against the hegemony of the state, and the linking of ‘the individual to the collective, the private to the public, and the personal to the political’.60 The←14 | 15→ political and the communal are therefore underlined as prevalent features of prison writing by Gready, who contributes to their consolidation as defining elements of the genre.

Roux affirms Gready’s stress on the political function of prison memoir. ‘South African prison literature’, he writes, ‘intersects strongly […] with the languages of political activism in this country’.61 He explores ‘the ways in which writing from and about prison resisted the power of the apartheid state’, underlining the strength inherent in the representation of the narrative subject and its collective resonance.62 Roux places most emphasis on the tensions surrounding the portrayal of the self: ‘political prison writing […] represents a laboratory for examining the encounter between the autobiographical ‘I’ and the powers that seek to contain and regulate the subject’.63 Part of the effect of prison, he argues, is a ‘preoccupation with interiority and the self’ as a result of separation and solitary confinement.64 This is counterbalanced by the compulsion to speak for a communal whole:

In prison, as a political prisoner, you encounter the state as a condition […] and your response is necessarily to the condition of the people rather than the self, or rather to the self as it synecdochically stands for the state of the people.65

The prison is presented as a microcosm of the state, supporting Roux’s assertion that prisons were part of South Africa’s national imagination.66 The prisoner is intertwined with this ‘state’, acting as a representative and spokesperson for the wider ‘state’ of the people. The double meaning of Roux’s use of ‘state’ is effective, as is the synechdochic function of the autobiographical self in political prison memoir. Roux reaffirms the critical consensus on this aspect of the genre.←15 | 16→

Several theories on the generic features of African prison memoir emerge from a reading of autobiographical and prison memoir theory so far. The importance of the collective is established from Olney to Moore-Gilbert and then Harlow, Gready and Roux. The political engagement of this literature is also confirmed by all. Moore-Gilbert’s emphasis on the social function of postcolonial life writing is of highest relevance to its prison memoir sub-genre. This study aims to advance these two main theories, exploring their application in a selection of political prison memoirs from across Africa. Considering the variety of chosen texts, my work broadens the focus of current criticism from looking chiefly at South Africa to other African countries. As a result, my research takes a wider view of prison writing from the continent, examining the connective features of each memoir in addition to their departures. While I aim to further the theorisation of the genre, it is important to note that no memoir fits into certain, predetermined categories. Life writing, Gready argues, offers a ‘flexible, provisional, tactical, inventive’ space, where the writer is ‘an active agent shaping a narrative in which events are selected, ordered, dramatized, simplified’.67 The memoirs are all unique, exacerbated by the subjectivity of each experience of imprisonment, and the difference in historical and political context, authorial style and intention.

African political prison memoir fits into a wider context of autobiographical writing on this subject. Prison memoir is an international genre, arising from a variety of political systems and conflicts across the globe and throughout history. Some of the best-known prison memoirs are European in provenance, such as Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (1947) or Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). Although a black disaporic approach to prison memoir is beyond the scope of this project, it is also vital to reference the African-American prison writing tradition, including life writing by Angela Davis, Mumia Abu-Jamal and George Jackson. Testimonies from Guantanamo Bay have, additionally, held recent media attention. African prison writing, by comparison, has tended to be overlooked in both the public and←16 | 17→ literary sphere. Much less criticism is available, for example, on the prison memoirs published by the internationally famous writers that I focus on than on their other works of fiction, poetry or drama. Equally, as I have summarised here, African prison memoir has received relatively little attention from an autobiographical perspective. My research intends to bring to the fore the prevalent experience of political imprisonment in Africa, represented by a diverse number of notable writers. I also aim to enunciate the distinctive features of my selected prison memoirs, reading them for what they reveal about the genre, and also for what they expose of the particularities of political imprisonment in their respective African countries.

Prison memoir constitutes a major genre of African life writing. It exists alongside other autobiographical forms including recent childhood memoirs such as Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011), and Ngugi’s Dreams in a Time of War (2011) and In the House of the Interpreter (2012). It is also accompanied by politicised memoir including Soyinka’s Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years (1994), You Must Set Forth at Dawn (2006) and Chinua Achebe’s There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012). The proliferation of autobiographical modes in Africa, a trait that underlines the diversity and flexibility of the genre, is similarly extended through travel writing. Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (2012) is a contemporary example. These titles relate to work by African authors. Many more have been written by non-vocational writers and political figures, especially in the area of prison memoir. The preponderance of this genre is a result of the centrality of the prison to postcolonial experience. From its colonial inheritance as a space of ‘captivity rather than custody’, the prison has continued to symbolise a means of political oppression across the continent.68 It is a colonial legacy that speaks to the changing systems of postcolonial politics in Africa, from the North to sub-Sahara.←17 | 18→

The scale of political imprisonment in many African countries after independence is an important indicator of political instability and conflict during this period. That so many writers from across the continent were detained at this time is telling of the still-combative systems of numerous governments after decolonisation. These arose as a result of the legacy of oppression inherited from colonialism, as well as successive regimes that utilised the same restrictive emergency laws and prison buildings to prevent political opposition and secure their own authority. As this book will illustrate, this was the case in Kenya, Malawi, Egypt and, during apartheid, South Africa. Nigeria, the fifth country I look at, utilised its prisons to their full capacity during the Biafran War, which took place shortly after independence. As outspoken political commentators, activists, authors and journalists, the writers I study were all victims of this form of suppression. Their voices posed a threat to political authority and were stifled through imprisonment. The publication of their prison memoirs, however, marks an intention to continue to resist through continued production. These writers refused to be silenced, upholding their struggle from the prison.

Each of the prison writers studied in this book conveys their disillusionment at post-independence governance. As a generation that, for the most part, grew up during decolonisation, their memoirs articulate an acute critique of political power, forming part of the wider climate of despair and frustration during this time. The writers I draw upon join many others in their representation of neocolonialism. One of the major intellectuals to engage with this subject was Frantz Fanon, whose work forms a theorisation of the neocolonial that is generally applicable across African contexts, and which illuminates the reasons for these writers being imprisoned. In The Wretched of the Earth (1961), he charts the betrayal of the anticolonial liberation movement by the elites and their descent into corruption and Western affiliation. ‘After independence’, he writes, ‘this under-developed middle class […] which refuses to follow the path of revolution, will fall into deplorable stagnation’.69 There follows the rise of ‘the national bourgeoisie’, which ‘identifies itself with the Western bourgeoisie’, privileging individual←18 | 19→ over indigenous advancement and promoting tribalism.70 These figures retain power through repression: the state ‘jostles people and bullies them’, forming single political parties as ‘the modern form of dictatorship’.71 Fanon provides invaluable insight and contextual background to the structural changes occurring in postcolonial governments from the 1960s onwards.

Prison memoir, as a widespread genre in Africa, testifies to this historical moment of political turmoil for both national and international readers. The writers are endowed with a specific social and testimonial responsibility. Soyinka’s assertion is indicative of this: ‘art should expose, reflect, indeed magnify the decadent, rotted underbelly of a society that has lost its direction’.72 More than just reflecting on the conditions of the prison, the writers I examine here connect their personal predicament to the larger political and social sphere. Prison memoir, as an autobiographical genre, is therefore produced under pressures that exceed the material. The writers are united by the difficulties of writing in a space in which it was forbidden. Moreover, their work challenges bourgeois theories of writing and narrative subjectivity because they did not have time to experiment with myriad uses of the subject pronoun. The memoirs do showcase linguistic experimentalism and an elaboration of each writers’ individual style; their literary value is unquestionable. Yet their contribution to life writing lies not in their versatility as exemplars of postmodernism and the deconstructed self. They differ markedly, for instance, from J. M. Coetzee’s Boyhood, Youth and Summertime, and their preoccupation with the subject as ‘he’ not ‘I’. Instead, each memoir has been selected for what it illustrates about the impact of prison on autobiography, and the defining features of this genre of life writing.

I have chosen five prison memoirs by different authors from across Africa in order to address a diversity of cultural histories and political contexts, in addition to theorising the major aspects of this genre as arising from these texts. My analysis therefore moves from the specific to the general, examining the specificities of the selected texts before moving←19 | 20→ into a more general theorisation. Each of the writers encountered here is well known in the global literary sphere; their work is rich and complexly interwoven with contemporary politics. Their prison memoirs therefore stand out as exemplary due to this literary-political prestige, in addition to the essential consideration of textual accessibility. All of the memoirs are internationally available, so access to them was not difficult. Each, excepting one, was originally written in English as a main language of Malawi, South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria: all anglophone countries with a British colonial history. The Egyptian memoir by Nawal El Saadawi was written in Arabic; I read it in translation. Critics reading in the original have not commented on the differences between the uses of the two languages in her work. The translations, however, have been widely accepted in the international sphere.

The book is structured thematically rather than chronologically, with a chapter per memoir. Each text therefore makes tangible certain thematic functions of the genre. Beginning with Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s prison memoir, which most corresponds to current criticism on the genre in relation to the narrative subject, I then turn to Ruth First’s text, which extends the concern for the collective in the context of apartheid. Wole Soyinka’s memoir focuses on the portrayal of psychological breakdown in prison, a theme that First introduces in her work. Soyinka’s representation of interiority contrasts against Saadawi’s emphasis, in the next chapter, on the physical body in relation to imprisonment. Jack Mapanje’s prison memoir completes the study. As the most recent publication, his memoir is also accumulative, touching on many of the themes and poetic forms employed by the previous writers. This memoir is stylistically innovative, applying textual modes inspired by the Malawian oral tradition as a technique of resistance.

My research concentrates on prison memoirs by these acclaimed vocational writers because of the narratives’ more substantial potential for literary analysis. There exists a large body of prison memoirs published by African writers and ‘non-writers’ alike. These include the many anti-apartheid activists imprisoned alongside Ruth First, Ngugi’s comrades writing in neo-colonial Kenya, Soyinka’s famed counterparts such as Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Saadawi’s and Mapanje’s contemporaries. Historically, looking back to the colonial period, there was of course a large body of←20 | 21→ work written by Kenya’s Mau Mau detainees, J. M. Kariuki being the best known. All of these figures and this significant corpus exist alongside our writers and are mentioned comparatively in the ensuing chapters. Of primacy in the public sphere and the most famous in the category of imprisoned ‘non-writer’, who does feature in many of the memoirs studied here, is undoubtedly Nelson Mandela and his Long Walk to Freedom (1994). This autobiography is expansive and written with a gripping clarity of prose, yet the academic merit of studying memoirs by the authors that I have selected lies in their self-conscious use of the genre of prison memoir for linguistic, thematic and stylistic effect.

Considering the abundance of writing within their own corpus, there is, also, a productive comparative element to my choice of authors, where each prison memoir can be read alongside trends or departures in the writers’ wider oeuvre. This cross-comparison is unparalleled in the critical field, where the prison memoirs analysed here are given little attention. Equally, in the commercial space, readers are less likely to stumble upon the prison diary as opposed to the drama, poetry and other prose of, for instance, Soyinka. It is only recently that Ngugi’s Detained has been reprinted by Penguin bearing the new title of Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir (2018). Saadawi’s memoir has not been included in subsequent reprints of her work, either. This relative neglect grants the content of the prison memoirs an added importance due to the absence of knowledge surrounding these prison experiences and the wider histories the authors bear witness to. Finally, and crucially, as public and politicised people in their own right, each memoir also yields a deeper capacity for an examination of the writers’ own selves. Through reading these pieces of life writing, we gain an understanding of some of the tensions and discrepancies within these writers’ project of self-construction. This, in turn, reveals the fuller impact of imprisonment on even these most inspiring and seemingly indefatigable figures.

Ngugi’s Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1981) accords with current criticism on prison memoir’s tendency to privilege the collective over the personal subject. His investment in opposing Kenya’s neocolonial climate in the years following independence in 1963 is illustrated not just by the fact of his imprisonment, but by his critique of political power – and its←21 | 22→ effect on the people – in his memoir. Detained goes further in foregrounding the communal over the individual. Stating that ‘I was never one for writing diaries’, Ngugi instead centres his memoir on recounting the history of political detention in Kenya, and the many political prisoners that sought to confront state power.73 In doing so, he establishes a trajectory of political resistance intended to continue to the present moment. This chapter expands on critics’ notions of collectivity in examining the extent to which this focus on the social impacts upon Ngugi’s portrayal of his own experience. He displays a reluctance to dwell on the personal, using his memoir instead to pursue the political themes of his work up to, and after, his imprisonment. An analysis of Detained is therefore vital to the study of African prison memoir for its exemplification and expansion of critics’ work so far. The memoir illustrates the extent of the genre’s political concern, evident through Ngugi’s own commitment.

Ruth First’s prison memoir, 117 Days (1965), experiments further with the boundaries between the individual and the collective as arising from her time in political detention during apartheid in South Africa. In this memoir, First does portray her own personal experience in detail. She narrates her psychological breakdown as a result of the intensive interrogation she was exposed to under the Ninety-Day Detention Order issued by the apartheid state for her work as a journalist and member of the African National Congress. Moving on from current criticism on the memoir, however, which focuses on First’s presentation of the self, this chapter explores the variety of perspectives she incorporates into her narrative, making it emphatically interpersonal. Even more than Ngugi, First engages with others’ experiences of prison by inhabiting their stance through the first person as well as third, and also through the inclusion of diary-like, italicised passages that mirror the investigative reportage of her journalism. This diversity of characters indicates the prevalence of imprisonment at this time, but also First’s intention to represent the experience of both black and white detainees. 117 Days conveys the significance of prison memoir in communicating the texture of political conflict as it is exacerbated in←22 | 23→ the prison space. It also demonstrates the flexibility of the genre, as it, by necessity, accommodates diverse perspectives.

Turning from the collective to the individual, Soyinka’s The Man Died (1972) is occupied with the psychological. This memoir extends First’s portrayal of mental breakdown through its focus on Soyinka’s own hunger strike and psychological disintegration in solitary confinement during the Biafran War in Nigeria. Employing his distinct mythopoetical style, Soyinka finds a vocabulary to represent the impact of imprisonment on the mind of the prisoner. In doing so, this chapter contends, he exceeds trauma theory’s expectations over the difficulty of testifying to experiences of imprisonment, from this particular African context. In constructing a language to portray his time spent in prison, Soyinka also uses his memoir as a space to transform and recuperate public perceptions of power. His narrative performs a sustained attack on Nigeria’s political system, exemplifying prison memoir’s use as a form of textual subversion whose quotations gain currency among readers in the public sphere. Soyinka’s prison memoir verifies its generic status as a key mode of resistance literature. Equally, it places the psychological as a prominent theme of the genre.

My study of Nawal El Saadawi’s Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (1986) is centred on the representation of the physical body of the female prisoner. Contrasted against the emphasis on the psychological in Soyinka’s memoir, Saadawi’s preoccupation with the physical is striking, extending all of the other writers’ engagement with the body and positioning it as a major component of prison memoir. In this chapter, I argue that Saadawi portrays the body of the prisoner – her own and the bodies of the women around her – in a different way to Michel Foucault’s notion of docility. She focuses on a form of physical movement that exudes autonomy, and that symbolically resists her imprisonment in Egypt, in a discourse that is motivated by a distinctly postcolonial liberative agency. In contrast to First, who works more for racial than gender equality, Saadawi’s feminism is an equally prominent feature of her writing. Detained for her criticism of Sadat’s government, but also for her engagement, as a medical doctor, with certain malaises affecting Egyptian women, Saadawi’s memoir reflects her defiance of cultural codes that she deems as restrictive to the female body.←23 | 24→

From the individual to the collective, the psychological to the physical, Jack Mapanje’s prison memoir positions aesthetics as a central feature of the genre. While all the memoirs I examine are concerned with literary form and style, And Crocodiles Are Hungry at Night (2011) brings these to the fore through Mapanje’s investment, as a linguist, in the Malawian oral tradition as the inspiration behind his writing. His memoir, as a result, is inflected by a shifting, conversational tone, consistent with the storytelling dynamic of orality. It is also occupied with the themes of nature, the local and, importantly, the political, as Mapanje assumes the role of spokesman for the conditions of his imprisonment and the wider repressive climate of Banda’s dictatorship in post-independence Malawi. As the most recent prison memoir to be published of this group, Mapanje extends the content of his narrative to address a globalised, contemporary readership. He also confronts the exilic as a state all of the writers here experienced after release. The memoir pushes at the boundaries of the genre, incorporating poetry, as Mapanje’s preferred form, in order to tell more acutely of the hardship of the prison. This text attests to the flexibility of the genre: the necessity of its applicability to a wide readership, its diversity of content and its varied form. Above all, it exemplifies prison memoir’s dynamism; its potential for creation, consolidation and the construction of a productive mode of literary resistance.←24 | 25→

1 Georges Gusdorf, ‘Conditions and Limits of Autobiography’, trans. James Olney, in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. James Olney (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 28–47 (p. 29).

2 Gusdorf, p. 29.

3 Gusdorf, p. 29.

4 Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), p. 3.

5 Smith and Watson, pp. 2–3.

6 Smith and Watson, p. 71.

7 Smith and Watson, p. 84.

8 James Olney, Tell Me Africa: An Approach to African Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. vii.

9 Smith and Watson, p. viii.

10 See also Derek Peterson, ‘Casting Characters: Autobiography and Political Imagination in Central Kenya’, Research in African Literatures, 37.3 (2006), p. 177.

11 Olney, p. viii.

12 Olney, p. 10.

13 Roger A. Berger, ‘Decolonizing African Autobiography’, Research in African Literatures, 41.2 (2010), p. 34.

14 Berger, p. 34.

15 Gusdorf, p. 35.

16 Philippe Lejeune, On Autobiography, ed. Paul Eakin, trans. Katherine Leary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 5.

17 Lejeune, p. 4.

18 Gillian Whitlock, Postcolonial Life Narratives: Testimonial Transactions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 3.

19 Lejeune, p. 3.

20 Lejeune, p. 4.

21 Lejeune, p. 4.

22 Smith and Watson, p. 131.

23 Isaac Ndlovu, ‘Prison and Solitary Confinement: Conditions and Limits of the Autobiographical Self’, English Studies in Africa, 55.1 (2012), pp. 19–20.

24 Ndlovu, p. 18.

25 Smith and Watson, p. 123.

26 See Paul John Eakin, Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

27 Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), p. 69.

28 Dan Zahavi, Subjectivity and Selfhood: Investigating the First-Person Perspective (London: MIT Press, 2005), p. 146.

29 Zahavi, p. 116.

30 Smith and Watson, p. 25.

31 David Huddart, Postcolonial Theory and Autobiography (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 2.

32 Huddart, p. 3.

33 Huddart, p. 2.

34 See Smith and Watson, p. 122.

35 Huddart, p. 2.

36 Bart Moore-Gilbert, Postcolonial Life-Writing: Culture, Politics and Self-Representation (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), p. xi.

37 Moore-Gilbert, p. xi.

38 Moore-Gilbert, p. xiv.

39 Moore-Gilbert, p. xvi.

40 Moore-Gilbert, p. xvii.

41 Moore-Gilbert, p. xvii.

42 Moore-Gilbert, p. xvii; xx.

43 Moore-Gilbert, p. xxii.

44 Moore-Gilbert, p. xxii.

45 Moore-Gilbert, p. xxii.

46 Moore-Gilbert, p. xxiii.

47 Neil Lazarus, ed.,Introducing postcolonial studies’, in The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 1–16 (p. 4).

48 Ioan Davis, Writers in Prison (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), p. x.

49 Moore-Gilbert, p. xiv.

50 Moore-Gilbert, p. 122.

51 Smith and Watson, p. 45.

52 Smith and Watson, p. 106.

53 Georg Misch, A History of Autobiography in Antiquity, trans. E. W. Dickes (Routledge: London, 1950), p. 4.

54 Misch, p. 15.

55 Misch, p. 15.

56 Barbara Harlow, Resistance Literature (London: Methuen, 1987), p. 120.

57 Harlow, p. 119.

58 Harlow, p. 121.

59 Paul Gready, Writing as Resistance: Life Stories of Imprisonment, Exile, and Homecoming from Apartheid South Africa (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003), p. 1.

60 Gready, p. 9.

61 Daniel Roux, ‘Writing the Prison’, in The Cambridge History of South African Literature, eds David Attwell and Derek Attridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 545–61 (p. 545).

62 Roux, p. 545.

63 Roux, p. 549.

64 Roux, p. 546.

65 Roux, p. 547.

66 Roux, p. 545.

67 Gready, p. 10; 7.

68 Florence Bernault, ‘The Shadow of Rule: Colonial Power and Modern Punishment in Africa’, in Cultures of Confinement: A History of the Prison in Africa, Asia and Latin America, eds Frank Dikotter and Ian Brown (London: Hurst and Company, 2007), pp. 55–88 (pp. 58–9).

69 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (London: Penguin, 2001), p. 121.

70 Fanon, p. 123; see also p. 125.

71 Fanon, p. 132.

72 Wole Soyinka, Foreword to Opera Wonyosi (London: Collings, 1981).

73 Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (London: Heinemann, 1981), p. 127.

Chapter 1

‘I was never one for writing diaries’: The Individual and the Collective in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1981)

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary accords with critics’ emphasis on the importance of the collective in prison memoir. As a genre of life writing that is highly politicised, addressing social problems and speaking to a communal whole, prison memoir is not solely focused on the individual, as autobiography may previously have been expected to be. Ngugi extends this engagement with collectivity in Detained as a text that furthers the political commitment of his writing up to, and after, his imprisonment. The memoir is occupied with a portrayal of his opposition towards neocolonialism in Kenya. This chapter argues that Ngugi, in his prison memoir, privileges the collective over the personal in a process that attests to his ideological position as a writer who dedicates his work to the liberation struggle of the Kenyan people. I expand on current criticism on collectivity in the genre through relating it to the presentation of Ngugi’s own self; analysing the effect of the collective on the narrative subject. This relationship is characterised by a tension that arises from Ngugi’s self-professed unease with the autobiographical mode. The personal is present yet deflected, as Ngugi continually turns his focus outwards to other figures and wider political systems. Detained illustrates the individual impact of collectivity.

Theorisations of prison memoir emphasise the collective as a distinguishing feature of the genre. Barbara Harlow is the most prominent critic in explaining this perspectival feature, and her work is worth reiterating here:

Their own experience of prison, as recounted in the memoirs of political detainees, is conditioned by the ideal of that larger collective struggle in which they are involved.←25 | 26→ The nature of that struggle both sustains their resistance in prison and informs the composition and structure of their prison memoirs.1

This observation is particularly apt for an analysis of Ngugi, whose memoir, as will be analysed, reflects his concern for the Kenyan cause on a national level. Harlow goes further in contrasting prison memoir with canonical autobiography: ‘The prison memoirs of political detainees are not written for the sake of a “book of one’s own”, rather they are collective documents, testimonies written by individuals in their common struggle’.2 She highlights the genre’s departure from traditional autobiographical theory: ‘The formal identity of author/narrator/main character which underwrites Lejeune’s “autobiographical pact” is rewritten in the prison cell as a political analysis of a larger social body’.3 These claims have direct application to Detained.

Harlow’s work is important for contextualising the centrality of the collective in prison memoir. These memoirs are written as part of a process of resistance, rather than as an isolated, individuated instance, and their focus is therefore not just on the prisoner’s relationship to the prison. Harlow gestures to this point in her argument that: ‘Their accounts differ from much other “prison writing” in that these prisoners did not simply “discover” their writing selves while in prison, but rather were often incarcerated because they wrote’.4 Political prison writing therefore functions within a larger discourse, dealing with both the cause of the writer’s detention and the continuation of their struggle within the prison, and, often, after release. This intention carries important implications for the form and focus of the memoir and, according to Harlow, cannot be overlooked in its analysis. She asserts that: ‘In seeking the concept of the individual as the basis and foundation of the autobiographical form […], critics fail to acknowledge the kind of political strategy that motivates prison memoirs’5.←26 | 27→ The personal perspective of the memoir is set alongside and directly related to, if not displaced by, the wider political cause in which the writer participates; a feature that is evident in Ngugi’s memoir.

Bart Moore-Gilbert, addressing postcolonial life writing more broadly, affirms its collective resonance. Drawing attention to the relational properties of the genre, he stresses its departure from traditional theorisations of autobiography: ‘Auto/biography Studies has traditionally advanced a view of autobiographical personhood as monadic and autonomous’.6 On the other hand, he argues, ‘the relationality of auto/biographical subjectivity’ is ‘[…] particularly obvious in the writing of self-conscious nationalists, where the author may seek to make himself representative of, or spokesman for, the collective to which he belongs’.7 Moore-Gilbert refers specifically to work by nationalist figures during the decolonisation and immediate independence period. Ngugi was writing during this time, and his work was advancing the anticolonial and anti-neocolonial cause. His perspective, however, differs from that of the nationalist in that he did not intend to be representative of, or speak for, the Kenyan people. While Ngugi utilises his role as an intellectual in order to further the struggle against imperialism, his stance is not that of the leader.8 Rather, his prison memoir illustrates his full immersion in, and even relegation to, the ‘collective to which he belongs’.9 Moore-Gilbert’s theory of relationality in postcolonial life writing can therefore be applied more precisely to its role in prison memoir. His demarcation of the nationalist as an exemplar of the relational is reconfigured through Ngugi.

These theories on the centrality of the collective in postcolonial life writing and political prison memoir provide a useful starting point for examining Detained. This memoir, more than any of the others in this study, represents a model for Harlow’s explanation of the collective and its impact on the narrative, and she cites Ngugi briefly as an example. While←27 | 28→ this chapter will interrogate, in fuller detail, the function of the collective in Detained, my critical intervention lies in relating it back to Ngugi’s portrayal of his individual perspective. This approach, I contend, advances the discussion of the collective or relational by connecting it back to the ‘self’, thereby offering a more autobiographical reading of the nature of political collectivity. In Ngugi’s case, the personal is not entirely absent. Instead, it is situated alongside the plural in a dialogism that speaks to his prioritisation of the Kenyan peasantry in enacting anti-imperial resistance after independence. The tension produced by the dialogue between the individual and collective also displays an essential unwillingness or reluctance on Ngugi’s part to dwell on the individual experience of prison. I will analyse the prominence of the collective in Detained, while also turning to the uneasy presence of a more personalised experience of prison.

Ngugi’s prefatory comments make apparent the extent of his prison memoir’s concern for the collective. In the preface to Detained, he attributes the reasons for his imprisonment to ideological difference. Referring to those responsible for his detention, he states: ‘These people saw themselves as representing certain social forces; and I as representing others’.10 In positioning himself as representative of ‘certain social forces’, he establishes his memoir as a space of political assertion, made evident in his following statement that: ‘I have, therefore, tried to discuss detention not as a personal affair between me and a few individuals, but as a social, political and historical phenomenon’ (xi). Ngugi takes his individual experience of prison and opens it up to reflect Kenya’s complete history of political imprisonment. In declaring his intention to do so in the opening of his memoir, he ‘proposes another definition of prison memoir’, as Harlow claims.11 This definition is based on a view of prison that is broad in scope, encompassing the social, political and historical, and which necessarily involves a range of people who form their own groups or collectives. Detained is shaped around these contrasting, competing collectives which are strategically represented in order to form a narrative that advocates resistance against imperialistic political systems in Kenya.←28 | 29→

Before addressing the prison in broad terms, Ngugi details his own arrest and detention in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, where he was imprisoned from 31 December 1977 to 12 December 1978. Recounting the event of his arrest, he describes the interruption of the police at his home, his questioning at a nearby police station and finally his arrival at Kamiti. The reasons behind his detention, are, however, less explicit. They carry a vagueness that conveys the arbitrary injustice behind his ‘Abduction’ (16). Detained without trial, Ngugi is only provided with an ambiguous statement from the state explaining that: ‘You have engaged yourself in activities and utterances which are dangerous to the good Government of Kenya’ (204). These activities were ‘the public performances of Ngaahika Ndeenda’, Ngugi’s co-written play, which ‘had been banned’ (17) shortly before his arrest, in addition to his novel Petals of Blood, which was published in 1977 and provides a critical portrayal of post-independence society. Stating that, ‘for one like me, […] in political detention because of his writing’ (6), Ngugi attributes his imprisonment to this work, yet his use of the third person is instructive. Moving from the personal to the general category of ‘political prisoner’ (6), these shifts in subject characterise the memoir’s style, as Ngugi refrains from dwelling on the personal for too long.

Ngugi situates his existence in Kamiti Prison within the wider context of political imprisonment in Kenya. This enlargement of perspective exemplifies his turn away from the individual to trace instead the pattern of political oppression from the colonial to post-independence period. Describing his arrival at Kamiti, for instance, when the area was placed under police curfew, Ngugi writes: ‘It was then that I witnessed something which I had last seen in colonial Kenya during the barbaric British imposed State of Emergency when similar terror tactics were a daily occurrence’ (18). As a witness of this history, Ngugi presents himself as a mediating figure, compelled to testify to both pre- and post-independence conflict. He acts as a pivot whose function is less to articulate his personal perceptions of the event than to portray its political implications. Ngugi recounts his experience of the Mau Mau Emergency in his childhood memoirs, Dreams in a Time of War (2011) and In the House of the Interpreter (2012). In Detained, he takes it as his task to link this period of increased government coercion←29 | 30→ to its continuation after decolonisation. These climates have shaped different points of Ngugi’s life in the same way that they dominate each memoir’s focus.

In order to further historicise his experience of prison, Ngugi presents himself as one among a larger group of political detainees. Portraying his entrance into Kamiti, he writes:

The huge prison gates, like the jaws of a ravenous monster, now slowly swung open to swallow me within its walls, which still dripped with the blood of the many Kenyan patriots who had been hanged there for their courageous Mau Mau guerrilla struggle against British imperialism. […]

Ironies of history: now my turn had come. (19)

Using language loaded with hyperbole, Ngugi communicates the mythical, fearful status of the prison in the public mind. He highlights its association with the Mau Mau struggle, and also its significance as the scene of the deaths of previous prisoners on account of their anticolonial resistance. The prison represents the epitome of state repression. It also becomes, through Ngugi’s writing, a place of memory where other detainees are commemorated. Turning to himself, Ngugi is positioned as part of this collective. His presence here attests to his individual plight: he goes on to detail his belittled existence, for instance, as ‘a lifeless number on a file among many files’ (19). In placing himself alongside other prisoners in this passage, he is reducing himself to a marker or representative of post-independence repression.

The criticism on Detained does recognise these collectivising features. Mary Ross argues that the memoir includes ‘records of individual and collective resistance to colonialism’, such as the reference to the ‘Kenyan patriots’ (19) quoted above.12 Jeannine DeLombard, reading in relation to autobiography, also contends that: ‘rather than the “prison diary” of an individual detainee, Detained can be read […] as an articulation of a “collective memory and identity” that stretches from the colonial past to←30 | 31→ the neo-colonial present’.13 Tony Afejuku defines the text as ‘a historical-political autobiography’, whose weight, as Isaac Ndlovu contends, is not on the personal: ‘[Ngugi] consistently places the prison at the collective, material and historical forces that led to its birth in Africa, and never at the individual confessional level’.14 Each of these critics recognises the political project of the memoir and its departure from the purely personal. The applicability of the relational and collective theorisation of prison memoir is therefore reinforced. To clarify, the ‘collective struggle’ in which Ngugi participates and to which his memoir is devoted is against his designation of continued political oppression in the post-independence period.15 The relationality of the memoir is evident in Ngugi’s connection with preceding prisoners and their history of resistance.

This chapter takes note of both the personal and the collective in Detained, arguing that political collectivity shapes the memoir, while also forming a dialogic relationship with Ngugi’s portrayal of himself as an individual. Only a few critics have drawn on the personal aspects of Ngugi’s memoir. Instead of noting the nature of its confluence with the collective, however, they grant it too much significance. Govind Sharma asserts that: ‘Like an autobiography, [Detained] is primarily a self-portrait. References to historical trends and events, analyses of social and political developments […] are really part of the author’s attempt to understand himself and to be understood by others’.16 While there are sections that do narrate his individual experience, at no point does Ngugi allow the personal to transcend the wider political impetus of the memoir. He is, additionally, under no pains to be ‘understood’ on a personal level. Simon Gikandi’s←31 | 32→ view of Detained is equally puzzling. He writes that: ‘In some of the most lyrical passages in his memoir, Ngugi both commemorates and affiliates himself with the insurgency against colonial rule and the counter-discourse it generates’.17 Despite pointing to these affiliative features of the narrative, however, Gikandi also posits that: ‘Above all, [Ngugi] places his own subjectivity and survival at the centre of the narrative’.18 Such an interpretative turn is disarming; although both the personal and collective do exist in the memoir, the emphasis that Gikandi and Sharma place on individualism is exaggerated.

Ngugi’s unwillingness to occupy himself with the single subject of his personal experience is affirmed in Detained. This affirmation appears in a section of the memoir that is fragmentary and diary-like, most likely to have been written hurriedly in prison and elaborated on to form the bulk of the memoir later, considering the restrictions on writing. Paper and pens were banned in the prison, and the practise of writing was forbidden. With regards to the precise time of writing, Ngugi provides no proof, although his publisher James Currey refers to a ‘draft manuscript’, which would indicate an editorial process if not a ‘writing up’ after his release.19 In this section of the text, nevertheless, Ngugi writes:

I will try a diary of life in prison. I’ll record everything that happens: what I see, touch, smell, hear and think. But no matter how hard I try, no words will form on paper. I was never one for writing diaries. (127)

Included in the later stages of the memoir, in the aforementioned ‘diary’ section, this quotation is somewhat set apart from the rest of the text. Through the use of the first person and the present tense, it appears more immediate and directly autobiographical. Expressing his discomfort with diaries, the statement resonates with the rest of the memoir, speaking to the lesser concern for the narrative self that Ngugi makes apparent through his←32 | 33→ sustained engagement with a range of other, broader subjects. This passage offers a precious insight not just into Ngugi’s method of writing, but also into his approach to autobiography. It prepares the reader for the extent of his preoccupation with collectivity.

Collectivity and Colonialism

The collectives depicted by Ngugi in Detained are not only composed of political prisoners and Mau Mau freedom fighters. He describes the ‘culture of silence and fear’ (19) created by Kenya’s colonial government as illustrative of the pervasive power of the state, which, even after independence, ‘assumes the malevolent character of a terrifying supernatural force’ (19). This climate, according to Ngugi, ‘can only be understood by delving into history, our history, to trace the roots of current ruling-class culture. […] It is to understand it that I am writing this account’ (20). The major pursuit of Ngugi’s memoir is clarified here. It comprises an investigation of the ‘culture of fear’ (20) from historic time to the present in order to understand its continued character. This subject is far from personal. It takes into account a collective history, ‘our history’, in addition to the nature of the current ruling class. Ngugi is resolute on the breadth of his memoir. His detention, he writes, is ‘part of the wider history of attempts to bring up the Kenyan people in a reactionary culture of silence and fear’ (2). As a writer, he takes it as his role to document this history that has resulted in his own imprisonment. The two subjects, for him, are inseparable.

Large sections of Detained are designated to a portrayal of Kenya’s colonial period in order to illustrate the source of the country’s ‘culture of fear’ (20). Ngugi’s concern for this theme moves the narrative firmly away from his personal experience of prison, incorporating into it instead a selection of colonial and settler perspectives. Introducing a chapter with the words: ‘A colonial affair…’ (29) – the original title of the memoir, according to Currey – he states that he ‘strongly held that the settlers were part of the history of Kenya’ (29), and that their ‘parasit[ical]’ (29)←33 | 34→ presence provides evidence of the corruption of society.20 For Ngugi, ‘the diaries and memoirs of the leading intellectual lights of the old colonial system contain full literary celebration of this settler culture’ (34). Quoting from a number of these diaries, Ngugi’s memoir becomes intertextual. He alludes, for example, to British historian Margery Perham’s 1929–30 diaries, in which she details the ‘unlimited entertaining’ (30) of settler lifestyle, to prove that ‘the settlers produced little’ (30). A look at Elspeth Huxley’s writing, equally, he argues, reveals their cultural ‘emptiness’ (30). Despite this change in subject matter away from the self, Ngugi’s point of view does not disappear. In his readings of these settler texts, he voices a distaste that contributes to his overall condemnation of colonial culture.

Ngugi manipulates his memoir’s form in order to construct his argument against colonial oppression. The chapters relating to Kenya’s colonial history are structured chronologically as the memoir resembles a kind of historiography. From illustrating the cultural vapidity of settler lifestyle, Ngugi moves into a presentation of ‘the culture of legalized brutality, a ruling-class culture of fear’ (34), which, he later argues, continues on in contemporary Kenya. Looking at ‘Colonel Meinertzhagen’s Kenya Diaries and Baroness Blixen’s Out of Africa’ (34), Ngugi critiques their representation of the deaths of two Kenyans to show the inherent racism and violence of colonial attitudes. Instead of being ‘an act of British heroism’, for example, he details how Koitalel, the ‘unconquerable military and political leader of the Nandi people’, was shot by Meinertzhagen ‘in cold blood’ (34). Regarding Blixen, Ngugi criticises the ‘hideous colonial aesthetic’ (35) of her report of Kitosch’s death. Refusing to accept this servant’s apparent ‘fiendish desire for suicide that absolves white murderers’ (36), Ngugi translates his final words from Swahili to prove that rather than wishing to die, Kitosch was declaring his death: ‘What, of course Kitosch said was, “Nataka kufa” which means: “I am about to die, or I am dying”.’ (36). Ngugi uses these sections of his memoir to re-write colonial history from the vantage point of the indigenous Kenyan.←34 | 35→

From individual settlers to their Kenyan subjects, Detained broadens out to examine the roots of political detention. Ngugi turns from individuals to wider collectives all of whom participate in his project of colonial denunciation. ‘Detention without trial is part of that colonial culture of fear’ (44), he asserts at the beginning of another carefully demarcated chapter, focusing on this theme. ‘Detention was an instrument for colonial domination’, he continues; ‘In its origins and purpose, it is clearly a colonial affair’ (44). Ngugi details the various colonial figures who established detention orders, beginning with Sir Arthur Hardinge who ‘armed himself with powers of preventative detention’ (44) in 1897. This was replaced by ‘the Emergency Powers Colonial Defence Order in Council (1939)’ (49), which granted the colonial governor the ‘responsibility to detain, deport and exclude from Kenya any person or persons without recourse to legislature or to the courts’ (49). Ngugi’s memoir reads like a legal history replete with factual detail. These passages raise the possibility of parts of the memoir being written after his release. Although writing after the event would detract from the immediacy of the memoir, it is reflective of its mechanisation. Through his changing perspective, Ngugi clearly intends it not to be an immersive, personalised diary, but a directed, informed political tract, with his own individual experience of prison contributing to it.

For Ngugi, the Mau Mau Emergency represents a turning point in colonial oppression in Kenya. It is during this period, in the ten years prior to independence in 1963, that political detention reached its pinnacle. On Mau Mau, Ngugi writes:

It was one of the largest and most brutal mass arrests, incarcerations and displacements of peoples in history, to instil into a community of millions the culture of fear and the slave aesthetic of abject submission to tyranny. (49)

The human cost of this war between the colonial government and predominately Kikuyu guerrilla fighters is conveyed by Ngugi in fuller, more personalised detail in his two aforementioned childhood memoirs, in addition to his novel, A Grain of Wheat (1967). It is a theme that he returns to time and again in his prison memoir, aligning his own imprisonment to it in order to show the post-independence government’s continued application←35 | 36→ of arbitrary detention orders. It is also a subject, however, that distances the memoir away from Ngugi’s contemporary prison experience, giving the narrative a more historical focus.

The historicisation of the Mau Mau Emergency in Detained is for subversive intent. J. M. Kariuki, a prominent post-independence political figure who was imprisoned during Mau Mau, writes in his prison memoir ‘Mau Mau’ Detainee (1963) that: ‘no one can understand the present temper of Kenya African politics without some awareness of the life led by our 80,000 detainees during those Emergency years’.21 Ngugi, in his prison memoir, draws on Mau Mau for political contextualisation. The war symbolises a rupture in Kenyan history that was part of the decolonisation process, but that also left a residual mark on public memory and established a legal precedent particularly in relation to imprisonment. Because of its anticolonial struggle, moreover, the memory of Mau Mau was something that Kenya’s first independent government tried to stifle. In his collection of essays, Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya (1983), Ngugi writes that ‘[t]eaching the history of Kenyan people’s resistance to colonialism is sedition’.22 He charts how historian Maina wa Kinyatti was arrested in 1982 for ‘[p]utting Kenya first’ in his work.23 Similarly, in his work on memoirs by Mau Mau detainees, Marshall Clough states that: ‘In Kenya, control of public memory has always been contended’.24 Incorporating the history of the Mau Mau struggle into his memoir, from the vantage point of the Kenyan people rather than the colonials, Ngugi writes an alternative history that foregrounds colonial injustice and the resistance towards it.

Historians attest to the brutality of Mau Mau and the centrality of imprisonment in Kenya during this time. David Anderson records how←36 | 37→ ‘[t]he unregulated patterns of torture conducted in Kenya’s screening camps in an earlier phase of the Emergency laid the foundation for the ‘regulation’ of torture in the detention camps after 1956’.25 Throughout the Emergency, these ‘detention camps were vastly expanded to accommodate nearly 80,000 Kikuyu suspects of Mau Mau affiliation’.26 Caroline Elkins corroborates the prevalence of imprisonment, stating that: ‘It is there – in the detention camps, Mau Mau prisons and Emergency Villages – that the battle unfolded between the colonial government and ordinary Kikuyu’.27 Colonial imprisonment in Kenya was, then, distinctly punitive while also exceeding the boundaries of a single prison space. Daniel Branch highlights these qualities in relation to the years preceding Mau Mau, asserting that: ‘Imprisonment in colonial Kenya was not defined by confinement, but instead by its punitive character’.28 With reference to Foucault, he argues that ‘[t]he Kenyan penal system bore little relation to the metropolitan model it was intended to replicate’.29 It was instead susceptible to the colonial conflicts that shaped it, which had grave consequences for the prison system during decolonisation. ‘[B]ecause of the scarcity of the relative element of confinement in prisons, authorities had to alter the nature of imprisonment to increase the punitive effect of a custodial sentence, and in so doing set alarming precedents for the 1950s’, Branch writes.30 In Detained, Ngugi portrays the extent of this punitive legacy both during Mau Mau and in the aftermath of independence.←37 | 38→

Competing Collectives and the Neocolonial

The most important pursuit of Detained is to represent the continuation of political oppression in the post-independence period: neocolonialism in Kenya. Ngugi does this primarily through the lens of the prison, which acts as an indicator of the level of repression exercised by the country’s first independent government. In his history of contemporary Kenya, Branch writes that: ‘Detention, a hallmark of colonial rule, was resurrected as a tool of governance’, referring specifically to the early years between 1963 and 1969.31 Ngugi alludes to this time, initially to point out how ‘[a]t independence, the Emergency Powers (Colonial Defence) Order in Council (1939) was repealed as part of Kenyan law’ (50). The creation, by the nationalist party, of the ‘Preservation of Public Security Act under which comes detention of persons and the restriction of their movements’ was, however, ‘only a change in terminology’ (51). It represented, according to Ngugi, ‘a total negation of all the democratic and human rights of Kenyans enshrined in the constitution’ (51). ‘Now the cardinal vices of all the colonial detention laws […] were now part of Kenya’s “independence”’ (51), Ngugi states. These laws had direct implications for the number of political detentions taking place in the following years. Ngugi’s description of these legalities contributes a wider context to the permissibility of his own detention in the late 1970s.

Ngugi expresses a collective sense of disappointment at the betrayal of Kenya’s spirit of independence or ‘uhuru’. This is directly connected to his and his fellow prisoners’ existence in jail:

[W]e all shared a common feeling: something beautiful, something like the promise of a new dawn had been betrayed, and our presence and situation in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison was a logical outcome of that historical betrayal. (63)

Ngugi mourns this betrayal, focusing his disappointment on the changed nature of the ruling political party. ‘What happened between 1961 and 1966←38 | 39→ to make KANU reintroduce all these undemocratic, unjust and arbitrary practices?’ (51), he asks. Ngugi follows this question with an analysis of the fabric of the nationalist party, moving into a socio-political study of the facts of the Kenya African National Party (KANU)’s transformation from a liberational to dictatorial style of governance. In outlining KANU’s evolution, Ngugi provides a definition of neocolonialism. Beginning as ‘an anti-imperialist movement representing Kenya’s national aspirations’ (52), ‘the KANU government [became] a virtual mouthpiece of Anglo-American interests’ (53), permitting, rather than preventing, the sustained influence of the former imperial power. In terms of the national leadership itself, ‘KANU was a mass movement containing within it different class strata and tendencies’ (52), he writes. ‘But by 1966, the comprador bourgeois line […] had triumphed. This faction, using the inherited colonial state machinery, ousted the patriotic elements from the party leadership, silencing those who remained and hounding others to death’ (54). From its diverse and democratic foundation, Ngugi illustrates, here, how KANU became as violent, corrupt and hegemonic as the colonial government, representing a new form of imperialism.

In his prison memoir, Ngugi scrutinises the leadership of Kenya’s first independent government. These figures form another of the collectives in Detained as he elaborates on their neocolonial identity. Ngugi begins by paying close attention to the class structure of KANU, whose ‘[l]eadership was in the hands of the petty-bourgeoisie’ (52). He separates this category into the ‘upper petty-bourgeoisie [that] can be branded as comprador; and the middle and lower petty-bourgeoisie [that] can be branded as nationalistic’ (52), of whom, ‘by 1966, the comprador line, led by Kenyatta, Mboya and others, had triumphed’ (54). For Ngugi, the class-base of these leaders was central to the country’s political decline. They represented comprador bourgeois interests, which, in contrast to the ‘faction representing national patriotic interests’ who were ‘backed by the masses’ (52–3), ‘controlled the entire coercive state machinery inherited intact from colonial times’ (53). This colonial affiliation affected the country’s economic, political and domestic spheres: the leaders formed a ‘cosy alliance with foreign economic interests’ (53); they aligned themselves with ‘the western imperialist bourgeoisie’ (53), taking ‘a less pro-African position’ (55); and they ‘abandoned←39 | 40→ democracy and any lip-service to Kenya’s history of struggle’, changing, ideologically, ‘the KANU constitution and manifesto’ (54) to the opposite of what it was at independence. Ngugi, as narrator, extends his role as political analyst, carefully outlining the characteristics of neocolonial governance.

Prison memoir as an autobiographical genre allows Ngugi space for an interpretive reading of Kenyan political history. This facet of the memoir illustrates the genre’s manipulability, particularly as it relates to the necessary inclusion of politics as a political prison memoir. Ngugi, however, exceeds this by substituting the perspective of the autobiographer or memoirist for that of the theoretician in several places in his memoir. This has been evident in his treatment of Kenya’s colonial culture, and more so in his interrogation of the country’s neocolonial leadership. Ngugi’s Marxist reading of Kenya’s postcolonial politics taps into and contributes to the wider use of Marxist discourse in the contemporary Kenyan intellectual sphere, where it was employed as a template to understand and react against its own capitalist-imperialist, exploitative system. Ngugi goes further in his analysis of the ruling class, portraying their nature in a parallel to Frantz Fanon’s chapter on ‘The Pitfalls of National Consciousness’ in The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Stating that ‘a comprador bourgeoisie is, by its very economic base, a dependent class, a parasitic class’ (56), Ngugi follows this with an explicit reference to Fanon: ‘For this class, as Frantz Fanon once put it, has an extreme, incurable wish for permanent identification with the culture of the imperialist bourgeoisie’ (56). The terminology pertaining to neocolonialism is shared across pan-African, postcolonial contexts.

Ngugi’s portrayal of the culture of Kenya’s elite in Detained mirrors Fanon’s. ‘[T]his class’, Ngugi writes, ‘can only admire that [imperial] culture from an undesirable distance and try to ape it the best they can’ (56). Regarding independent countries in Africa more broadly, Fanon establishes that: ‘This native bourgeoisie […] has adopted un-reservedly and with enthusiasm the ways of thinking characteristic of the mother country’.32 Ngugi, then, joins Fanon as a theoretician of this particular aspect of the postcolonial situation. In this section of Ngugi’s memoir, he←40 | 41→ juxtaposes the ruling class against their colonial predecessors, consolidating his illustration of their continued rapport and resemblance. Just as, for example, ‘[t]he settler despised peasant languages’, so ‘[t]heir pupils carry this contempt a stage further’ by ‘ban[ning] African languages in schools’ (59). His argument is rhetorical and vehemently critical, concluding with a reiteration: ‘The fact is that the comprador bourgeoisie would like to resurrect the imagined grandeur and dubious dignity of colonial culture’ (61). Through his focus on the configuration of neocolonialism and its proponents, Ngugi’s memoir complements his wider work on this subject, including theoretical essays and more recent novels such as Wizard of the Crow (2006). Far from being a ‘prison diary’, it is instead a prison diatribe against the neocolonial.

The colonial and neocolonial collectives represented in Detained are contrasted with a collective comprised of Kenya’s resistance heroes. Ngugi refers to them at different points throughout his memoir in order to build on his ‘alternative’ rewriting of history by foregrounding their experience. He gestures early on to ‘a section of Kenyans who […] went on to lay a firm foundation for Kenya’s proud history of resistance against imperialist domination and exploitation’ (43). He later establishes that: ‘Here we are looking at the early detainees and what traditions and forces they embodied’ (46). Already, Ngugi’s vocabulary assumes a mode of instruction. Addressing the collective of his readership through the first person plural, he turns our focus decisively to these figures with the effect of accentuating their textual presence. His use of the pronoun ‘we’ also functions strategically to unite his readers behind their group. In stark contrast to the negative vocabulary associated with the neocolonials, he celebrates these prisoners’ achievements: ‘Waiyaki, one of the first political detainees in Kenya, was also among the first to die in detention, splendidly proud and defiant to the very end’ (46). Ngugi refers to the prisoners individually and by name, granting them a depth of character that is absent in his recollection of the colonialists.

Rather than constituting autobiography, Detained becomes biographical in certain places through Ngugi’s reference to a range of Kenya’s political detainees. For several that he mentions, he summarises the reasons for their detention and the extent of their anticolonial struggle. After Waiyaki, for←41 | 42→ instance, ‘Nguunju wa Gakere was another. He was the leading force of the struggle against the British occupation of Nyeri’ (46). Next in ‘the long line of resistance heroes leading to Kimaathi in the 1950s’, is ‘Me Kitilili, the leader of the Giriama people’s resistance to the British occupation of their country’ (46). Incorporating female freedom fighters into his memoir, Ngugi emphasises that ‘Kenyan women too played their part’ (46) in the anticolonial struggle. Amidst his list of people, her story is the lengthiest and most pronounced. Turning to Arap Manyei, who ‘tirelessly worked to forge political unity among the Nandi and the related Kalenjin peoples’ (48), Ngugi ends his synopsis with the repeated incentivised refrain: ‘Not for him the slave mentality of the colonial culture of fear’ (49). These figures grow in number, populating the prison memoir. Ngugi applauds their individual defiance, while also encouraging their communal enculturation of anticolonial resistance.

Kenya’s culture of resistance against political control is a central theme of Detained. Ngugi’s narrative focuses not just on individuals, but also on wider cultural currents, broadening the collectivising scope of the memoir. He describes the ‘mounting despair’ (63) he and his fellow detainees would feel as they contemplated the neocolonial situation in jail, yet counters this with the recollection of ‘another history, a beautiful history, a glorious history’ (64). This history is comprised of ‘Kenyan people creating a resistance culture, a revolutionary culture of courage and patriotic heroism’ (64). Whereas writers such as Huxley and Blixen document colonial culture in their memoirs, Ngugi is the curator of an indigenously Kenyan, anti-imperialist culture in his. Detained, however, is more directed. Rather than testifying to a uniquely personal experience that contains broader cultural inferences as they do, Ngugi’s memoir is written to be overtly political. Through its criticism, it promotes condemnation of colonialism and neocolonialism. Through its celebration, it equally encourages continued resistance towards these forms of imperialism. Ngugi’s words are rousing as he writes of: ‘A fight back, creative culture, unleashing tremendous energies among the Kenyan people’ (64). In his use of the present continuous, he underlines that this is a culture that is persistent and ongoing, into the present.←42 | 43→

The trajectory of resistance that Ngugi establishes in his prison memoir is especially evident in his portrayal of contemporary political detainees. He categorises ‘two types of political prisoners: those who finally succumbed and said “Yes” to an oppressive system; and those that defied and maintained ‘Never!’ (81). To focus on the latter, Ngugi writes: ‘Now to the original list of Waiyaki, Me Kitilili, Arap Manyei, and Mau Mau hard-core anti-imperialists, we may now add two more detainees, Makhan Singh and J. M. Kariuki. The list grows with time’ (93). Again, Ngugi uses a collective pronoun, doing more than simply involving the reader in his support for these figures. The ‘we’ unites us with the struggle. Despite Detained’s international publication as part of the African Writers Series, and the hesitant circulation of it in Kenya for fear of government banning, the intended readership of the memoir is, expectedly, the Kenyan people.33 The message of the memoir at this point is that if these figures can defy oppression, so can they. Ngugi, in the above quotation, also underlines the cumulative effect of resistance. He details the work of Singh and Kariuki. Singh, ‘a remarkable Kenyan of Asian origins, is synonymous with the growth of a modern workers’ movement’ (93). Kariuki, Mau Mau prison writer and ‘one of the bitterest critics of the post-independence betrayal of Kenyan people’ (95), comes next. Through these prisoners, Ngugi conveys hopefulness. They exemplify the challenges of resistance, but also the importance of persistence.

Detained is, then, composed of multiple, ideologically positioned collectives. The colonials are juxtaposed against the Mau Mau freedom fighters; the politicians against contemporary prisoners and a wider culture of resistance that Ngugi supports. He extends this latter category to include his own fellow prisoners. They are presented as a community that has sustained the historic resistance struggle in more recent events. ‘I am amazed to find that the various detainees at Kamiti fall into groups that span the whole history of post-independence upheavals in Kenya’ (123), he writes. There was, for instance, ‘the J. M. Kariuki crisis of 1975: this←43 | 44→ had claimed the largest group of victims – Adamu Matheenge, Koigi wa Wamwere, Giceru wa Njau’ (123), the list grows. The prison that they inhabit is also perceived as evocative of the struggle: ‘Strange how a place acquires its own personality, history, even culture and special vocabulary’ (131), Ngugi muses. ‘All those who have been in this compound became part of the spirit of our history as detainees’ (131). This group of prisoners are portrayed as inextricably connected to their predecessors across time and space: ‘It is as if we are all part of an undeclared political fraternity’ (131). Ngugi’s memoir and its emphasis on the collective is, however, performative in a broader oppositional sense as it firmly declares the political fraternity to exist.

Ngugi’s position among the ‘political fraternity’ (131) in his prison memoir is made clear, but less emphatically. ‘And lastly’, he writes, ‘there was the peasant/worker consciousness, struggle and anti-imperialist challenge underlying all the above upheavals [….]: I was its victim’ (123). Leaving himself until last in his list of political detainees at Kamiti, it is clear that Ngugi’s allusion to his own self is unprivileged. He is, moreover, comforted by the thought that ‘I am part of a living history of struggle’ (124). The ‘I’ makes a rare appearance here, but it is tentative, bolstering itself only through its reliance on the community. Ngugi’s self-positioning is further evident through his earlier claim that: ‘I am not trying to write a story of sentimental heroism. I am only a stammerer who tries to find articulate speech in scribbled words’ (97). This assertion sheds incontrovertible light on his perception of his place within his memoir. Detained, according to Ngugi, is not about an overriding concern with himself. He is, if anything, self-belittling, describing his writing style as less than it is.

A prominent collective that emerges in Detained is that of the prison writers. ‘At Kamiti, virtually all the detainees are writers or composers’ (6), Ngugi states. ‘Wasonga Sijeyo has volumes of notes on his life, […] Koigi wa Wamwere has many essays on politics and culture’ (6). The list continues. Ngugi situates himself within this network of writers, but not exceptionally. As a writer by vocation, he, too, must write for survival in jail. Writing as an activity is presented as essential to a prisoner’s capacity to live. Its importance is therefore exacerbated in the prison. Writing←44 | 45→ has, Ngugi writes, ‘enabled me to defy daily the intended detention of my mind’ (6). He documents the writing of his prison novel, Devil on the Cross (1982), on toilet paper, emphasising that ‘writing this novel has been one way of keeping my mind and heart together’ (8). Ngugi, then, joins this group of writers through his need to write, both outside and especially inside of the prison. Writing represents an act of defiance, ‘an insurrection of a detained intellect’ (8), but also a compulsion: ‘I have to write; I must write’ (127). This intention may be recorded from an individual perspective, but through his references to his fellow prisoners’ writing, it is also a collective act.

Ngugi similarly presents himself as one among a wider collective of detained African writers. He quotes several times from the poetry of South African anti-apartheid activist Dennis Brutus, fusing his experience of prison with his own. For Ngugi, Brutus’ poetry ‘captures very accurately the emotions of a new political prisoner’ (144). Not only does Ngugi’s memoir become intertextual at these points. It is also interpersonal, as he relates his experience of political prison to other writers’. The ‘same good old toilet-paper’ to write on, for instance, ‘had been useful to Kwame Nkrumah in James Fort Prison, to Dennis Brutus on Robben Island’ (6). In addition to the details of their efforts to continue writing, Ngugi highlights the confluence of the political contexts that bring them together. Recalling his attendance of the ‘historic 1962 Conference of African Writers’, he remembers ‘the energy and the hope’ arising from the decolonisation moment: ‘we were part of a continent emerging from a colonial era into … what?’ (142). Since then, ‘Wole Soyinka and Kofi Awoonor have served prison terms for saying that things which are not right ARE NOT RIGHT’ (142), he emphasises, highlighting through repetition and the use of capitals their criticism of corruption. Alluding to their detention, Ngugi illustrates the collective disappointment of post-independence Africa, while remaining defiant: ‘This earth, our earth, my brother!’ (142), he addresses Awoonor. Ngugi unites himself with these writers, drawing attention to their imprisonment but also to their shared resistance.←45 | 46→

Biographical notes

Rachel Knighton (Author)

Rachel Anna Knighton completed her PhD in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, for which she was awarded a Graduate Research Scholarship by Girton College. Her PhD research forms the basis of this book.


Title: Writing the Prison in African Literature