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Writing the Prison in African Literature

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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 2 ‘We were all serving time’: Prison Memoir and Perspectival Variation in Ruth First’s 117 Days (1965)

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Chapter 2

‘We were all serving time’: Prison Memoir and Perspectival Variation in Ruth First’s 117 Days (1965)

The inclusion of a variety of perspectives in Ruth First’s 117 Days is at the centre of her portrayal of the experience of prison in South Africa. Her prison memoir extends what I have identified as Ngugi’s concern for the collective through her personal connection to this communality; she is invested in, and her own subject position is dependent on, the need to account for others. Imprisoned in 1963 as part of the apartheid state’s Ninety-Day Detention Order, First was one of many political prisoners. Her prison memoir illustrates this fact, positioning a wide range of viewpoints on the prison alongside her own. In this chapter, I contend that 117 Days reflects less of First’s preoccupation with her individual self in prison than with her desire to write on behalf of others. This feature of the memoir illustrates the versatility of prison memoir and its departure, once again, from traditional notions of a fixed autobiographical self. First’s memoir draws attention to the instability of the concept of the self, but also to its lack of singularity in this genre of life writing. My reading of 117 Days advances critics’ focus on the prominence of the personal. The memoir bridges the gap between the personal and collective, while also conveying the connective and contextual impossibility of complete identification. First’s attempts at perspectival variation are restricted on account of her...

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