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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 5 ‘[W]hat song shall I sing from this stench?’: Creating a Prison Poetics in Jack Mapanje’s And Crocodiles Are Hungry at Night (2011)


Chapter 5

‘[W]hat song shall I sing from this stench?’: Creating a Prison Poetics in Jack Mapanje’s And Crocodiles Are Hungry at Night (2011)

Jack Mapanje’s prison memoir represents a consolidation of the genre of African prison writing. Published in 2011, his memoir is a composite text, performing a number of functions that connect the past to the present, the individual to the international and poetry with prose. This prison memoir has received no criticism to date, yet is important in understanding the flexibility of the genre as it responds to changing political systems, an increasingly globalised world and the cultivation of a fertile medium for the narrativisation of prison experience. Mapanje’s memoir, in comparison to those by the preceding prison writers, is less concerned with subjectivity, psychology and the body, and more occupied with the linguistic. In this chapter, I contend that Mapanje’s portrayal of prison is influenced by his investment in the Malawian oral tradition, which impacts upon the narrative voice, tonality, themes, symbolism and political preoccupation of the memoir. And Crocodiles Are Hungry at Night transcribes elements of the oral tradition in order to convey, in English and to a wide readership, the distinct features of Malawian political imprisonment as effectively, and as dynamically, as possible.

Mapanje’s use of Malawi’s oral tradition in his prison memoir contributes to the wider theorisation of orality in Africa, the ‘continent of the voice’.1 ‘Oral literature’ has previously been defined as an important...

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