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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 3 ‘Language needs to be a part of resistance therapy’: Narrating Psychological Breakdown and Political Opposition in Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died (1972)

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Chapter 3

‘Language needs to be a part of resistance therapy’: Narrating Psychological Breakdown and Political Opposition in Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died (1972)

Wole Soyinka’s prison memoir, The Man Died, expands on the concern for the psychological impact of political imprisonment identified in Ruth First’s memoir. In narrating his hunger strike and mental breakdown, Soyinka goes further than First, finding a language not only to describe, but also to reflect the turbulent processes of his mind. Imprisoned from 1967 to 1969 during the Biafran War, Soyinka’s concern for the psychological is equally connected to the political. Asserting in his preface that ‘[l]anguage needs to be a part of resistance therapy’, Soyinka’s portrayal of Nigeria’s political situation, in addition to his own experience of prison, performs a deliberate remedying of the individual and communal effects of the country’s destructive climate.1 This chapter contends that the literal theme of psychology and its linguistic bearing – Soyinka’s use of language to comprehend a certain reality – is central to The Man Died in terms of enacting a form of narrative resistance towards political conflict and personal psychological breakdown. It is through his use of language, particularly in relation to political obscenity and mental depravity, that Soyinka seeks to overcome the debilitating effects of prison and corrupt governance. His memoir reconfigures work by trauma theorists through his ability to testify to these features. In particular, his mythopoetical style and the prominence of Yoruba aesthetics, exacerbated in his portrayal of the...

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