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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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Political imprisonment is a trans-historical, global phenomenon whose recurrence connects a diversity of cultural contexts. Political prison memoir is of a lesser prevalence, considering the harsh and restrictive conditions that many prisoners are and have been subjected to, making the process of writing either difficult or impossible. This genre of life writing is, nevertheless, widespread, as prisoners – vocational writers or otherwise – often turn to writing to find a means of expression or distraction. I have mentioned the major testimonial accounts arising from the largest and most infamous detention centres, from the concentration camps of the Holocaust to Guantanamo Bay. Less well known is, perhaps, the writing that emerged from Colonel Gaddafi’s Abu Salim prison in Libya, or, though non-political, the creative writing by South Africa’s Victor Verster’s maximum security prisoners, collected in Fifteen Men.1

The prison memoirs in this study represent experiences of political imprisonment throughout Africa in the postcolonial period. Parallels may be drawn across geo-political contexts, but these memoirs speak specifically to their post-independence moment. As a prominent genre of life writing in Africa, their preponderance is indicative of the scale of political imprisonment after decolonisation. The large number of prison memoirs by politically detained writers also attests to the important role that writer-activists played in the public, socio-political sphere, and their targeting by political authority. The five writers I have chosen to focus on stand out for their renown in the African literary canon. Each, with the possible exception of Ruth First, who...

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