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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 4 ‘Moving the body means life’: Liberation and the Body in Nawal El Saadawi’s Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (1986)


Chapter 4

‘Moving the body means life’: Liberation and the Body in Nawal El Saadawi’s Memoirs from the Women’s Prison (1986)

Nawal El Saadawi places more emphasis on the physical body in Memoirs from the Women’s Prison than the other prison memoirs in this book. Her portrayal of her time as a political prisoner in Egypt in 1981 is centred upon her body as well as those of the female prisoners around her. The memoir, as a result, advances the study of the body in relation to the prison. It also establishes the body as an important feature of prison memoir as an autobiographical genre. As I will illustrate, the representation of the body in Saadawi’s memoir extends autobiographical theorists’ conception of its relevance in postcolonial life writing. Her portrayal equally recasts Michel Foucault’s depiction of the docile body of the prisoner. In terms of the prison memoirs analysed here, Saadawi offers a form of potential liberation founded on the physical that differs from Ngugi’s and First’s concern for collective political struggle and Soyinka’s stress on the psychological. I argue that it is through the representation of the moving, autonomous body in Memoirs from the Women’s Prison that Saadawi challenges both her imprisonment by the state and her prognosis of female oppression in Egypt. The body performs a political and feminist function in this prison memoir, as Saadawi’s engagement with these themes overlaps in her role as one of Egypt’s most prominent writer-activists.


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