Growth And Context Of Prison Literature

By Nelda Powers


Prison literature is referred to as writing produced when the author is confined against personal will. The location of confinement could be a prison, house arrest or in jail. It takes the form of plays, fiction, memoirs, non-fiction and at times writing to regular press. It is about confinement, informed by the confinement or produced when the author was confined.

Some of the earliest writers from confinement include Boethius who produced Consolation of Philosophy in 524 AD. This is described as transformational and among the best books to ever have been written about the subject. Martin Luther is said to have produced the translation of the New Testament into German language while confined. Bonaparte Napoleon is said to have dictated his memoirs behind bars. They later became best sellers in the 19th century.

Imprisonment has altered the writing styles of different authors besides providing them with content. Fyodor Dostoevsky is an example of this transformation. He was imprisoned for participating in the activities of an illegal movement of intellectuals. Four years after imprisonment, he changed his style and tone in writing to become more critical of nihilist and socialist view points. He was known to write about suffering and humility. This darkened his works and made it complex to understand.

The nature of prisons does not allow writers to access decent writing materials. They use waste papers and their manuscripts have to be smuggled out in secrecy at a certain point. Writers who have penned about their experiences include William Sydney Porter who used the name O Henry to produce 14 stories. Ken Saro Wiwa wrote about a naive soldier living behind bars in a book entitled Sozaboy.

An amazing scenario happened in Iran when Dowlatabadi Mahmoud was imprisoned. This is where he wrote the book Missing Soluch which was 500 pages. The amazing thing was how Mahmoud managed to write the entire book without a pen or paper. It was all in his head. After he was released, he put it in paper over a 70 days period.

Some literary icons have produced incredible works while confined behind in different prisons. They include Chris Ambani, a Nigerian who documented his experience in Kalakuta Republic. The other example is Ngugi wa Thiongo who compiled his memoirs in a collection entitled Detained, A Prisoners Diary. The diary was published in 1981. Women who have contributed in this genre include Precious B from New York, Madam Roland from France, Nawal El Saadawi in Egypt and Beatrice Saubin who wrote from Malaysia.

Prisoners have written to pass time especially the incarcerated intellectuals. Organizations have been organizing writing forums for prisoners in an attempt to tap into their thoughts. This genre has been used to fuel revolutions and contribute to debates outside prisons, either directly or indirectly.

Prison literature thrives on the experiences, philosophy and thoughts of imprisoned people. Prisoners are encouraged to write in order to overcome the trauma or as a therapeutic act of cleansing their minds of the horror behind bars. It allows them to reconcile with imprisonment.




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