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Writing the Prison in African Literature


Rachel Knighton

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 onward 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.

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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...

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