Friday, November 12, 2010

Writers in Detention

Throughout the history of literature and writing prison cells have been a well from which scribes have drawn material for their works. While veterans come out with confounding titles people with no literary back ground are converted by penitentiary confinement into great writers.

Due to their quest to pinpoint the society’s shortcomings through criticism, satire, dramatisation and prose scribes more often not end up being confined in a bid to silence them.

And it’s in prison where the flames of their conviction burn brighter for condemned to many hours of loneliness they indulge in retrospect, meditation and soul searching which sprout into diaries, notebooks and memoirs whose teachings later on inspire millions.

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” Written by Nelson Mandela during his incarceration at Robben Island on some scraps of paper which he buried under the floor of his prison cell, these words were to mark the first chapters of the Long Walk to Freedom.

One of the most outrageous manuscripts to emerge from a prison cell is Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kraf, which turned to be the Holocaust manifesto.

Besides spinning a school of religious, political and social writers, detention and imprisonment has also inspired great works from academics and literature giants. Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Writer in Detention which he wrote in the years he spent in Kamiti and Jeffrey Archers “Prison Diaries” are just a few examples.

Egyptian woman writer Nawal -el Saadawi, despite the banning of her books, detention by the state and death threats from Islamic militants, continues to be the loudest voice of Muslim women rights in the world.

Cultural, religious and political barriers have not hindered her from penning controversial titles like The Hidden Face of Eve, God Dies By The Nile and Two Women in One.

However there are those who find solace and repentance from writing despite being condemned to jail for criminal offences. Never being writers at all they first taste the literary pill in gaol and get hooked.

Besides their characterisation and plots being influenced by both sides of their life, most prisoners’ writings divert sharply from the convectional styles. Defiance from the rules of law-legal, literal and moral-defines the foundation of their works.

A good example here is Donald Goines, a career criminal and drug addict who wrote the first of his two novels in prison. The titles of his works reflected his morbid life style that handed him six jail terms in the thirty seven years he graced the earth. Whoreson, Black Gangster, Cry Revenge and Death List were some of the books he penned with two of them, Never Die Alone and Crime Partners being made into movies.

Though his work was dismissed by the literary class of his time as “junk marauding as art” his outrageous titles has not only influenced modern day gangsta rappers like Tupac Shakur and Noreaga, but has also been adopted by the rap influenced African American population as part of their cultural heritage.

Besides these weird titles he also created a four book series featuring a gang hero named Kenyatta who leads a militant organisation determined to clean American ghettos of drugs and prostitution. The character, peculiarly named after Kenya’s founding father, is brutally shot dead in the series’ last novel Kenyatta’s last hit.

Like the characters in his books Goines life ended violently when he and his wife were shot dead on the night of October 21 1974 in what was suspected to be a botched drug deal.

Closer home Kamiti seems to be the hatching nest for jailhouse literature in Kenya with Benjamin Garth Bundeh’s Birds of Kamiti and Wahome Mutahi’s Jailbird having flown from there long after John Kiriamiti’s My Life in Crime.

According to Piri Thomas, the Latin American poet and writer who launched his thirty year old career while serving a seven year jail term with his autobiographical Down These Mean Streets, “Writing is the only way one can relieve the load of guilt, loneliness, despair, disillusionment and pain that comes with life in prison”

This is confirmed by the fact that even those unable to write a book usually spend ample time of their mostly idle lives scribbling graphiti on the cell walls.

Due to the increased number of writers and journalists imprisoned in the line of duty International PEN, a world wide association of writers, formed Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) which advocates for the unconditional release of scribes held unlawfully around the globe.

November 15th is the official Writers in Prison day when Norwegian WiPC awards the Ossiezsky Prize for outstanding achievements in the field of expression. Among those honoured in the past is the outspoken Kenyan politician and author Koigi wa Wamwere.