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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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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)


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...

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