Writing Within: The
Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka and Breyten Breytenbach
by Mark L. Lilleleht
Chapter 1 - Introduction
The seeming ease with which governments imprison and detain a nation's writers and the relative impervious nature of these governments to pleas for release and leniency is one of the more disturbing trends in contemporary African politics and literature, and one that has not been significantly abated by independence or the more recent trend (or lip-service paid) toward more democratic institutions. These detentions have resulted in a burgeoning literature written from and of the prison experience: imprisoning a writer may change his or her views and you may succeed in cowing him but it is rare that governments are able to change the esteem, or lack thereof, in which they are held.
It is virtually impossible to speak in meaningful general terms of the literature that has emerged from the prison experience of such diverse writers as Ngugi wa Thiong'o of Kenya, Ken Saro-Wiwa of Nigeria and Jack Mapanje of Malawi, to name but three. Even within a single country, and in this regard South Africa is perhaps the most instructive and disturbing, the hows and whys and conditions of detention vary to such a degree, and those imprisoned are of such radically different political and cultural backgrounds as to make useful generalization almost fruitless. Frantz Fanon writes that "a great many men and women who up till then would never have thought of producing a literary work, now that they find themselves in exceptional circumstances - in prison, with the Maquis, or on the eve of their execution - feel the need to speak to their nation, to compose the sentence which expresses the heart of the people, and to become the mouthpiece of a new reality in action."(1)
Most of the literature surrounding the prison experience that makes its way into Western institutions and book stores is produced by those who have been detained for political rather than criminal reasons. Justification for detention by the authorities often comes in the form of a statement that they suspect criminal activity or, more insidiously, they suspect criminal intent or designs on the part of the detainee, though such statements are usually offered more for public consumption and as rather clumsy attempts at providing political cover. Although literary works surrounding the prison experience and produced by or concerning convicted criminals have a long history in the Western countries (e.g. Jean Genet, any number of Dickens' works, Mailer's The Executioner's Song, John Bunyan, etc.) works by African authors that find wide distribution in the West are almost exclusively concerned with the prisoner confined for clearly political reasons and these works reflect, to varying extent and with varying degrees of success, the authors' own political concerns.
Recognizing the above qualifications and limitations, it is still possible to begin to formulate general problems and questions that "prison literature" poses for the reader and the critic. The most immediate and pressing concern that we confront is how to constructively critique the text without minimizing the experience. There is an understandable hesitancy in addressing what might be a text's stylistic shortcomings (of form, structure, grammar, use of metaphor, etc.) in light of the intensity of the subject. This calls forth the larger question of how to differentiate between the life of the author and the text and whether one can or even should be critiqued without reference to the other.
This is a question that the critic must wrestle with regardless of the type or subject of the work at hand, but is brought into particular focus when dealing with the literature of detention. Are the critical tools that we use to address other forms and subjects sufficient in addressing these works? Do we need to construct another critical approach to the literature of detention or do such works serve as another test for and means of refining and honing the critical skills and tools that we bring to any reading?
It is the latter proposition that this work will address for the sole reason that it is better to test the critical skills and methods we bring to a particular text, or group of texts, and determine if they are insufficient, rather than assuming a priori the wholesale inadequacy of any one or a melange of critical approaches. But, as critical readers, we also need to be open to the special challenges and questions raised by these texts: both textual and socio-political. It is absolutely imperative that we think plurally rather than singularly when coming at these works. To look at any one of these texts as "merely" a political document, or as an indulgence enjoyed because of the author's status is to cheapen the work, the person and the critical project. As critics, we enjoy a freedom beyond that allowed to many of these authors, during their time of imprisonment and after. To not take advantage of this freedom seems less an expression of solidarity and much more an abrogation of responsibility. Just as the cell and detention are evocative and productive tropes for the creative writer, they can lure the critic into a narrow and myopic vision and presentation of the literature of detention. A horrible injustice committed against an author need not excuse poor writing or a boring story, nor should beautifully presented lyrical language allow gross malfeasance or betrayal to pass uncritiqued. All such matters shape our reading of a particular text and our understanding not just of the author but the world - both textually and contextually defined - he inhabits. It is our responsibility to recognize if not wrestle with these issues.
The question, again, is whether works of detention pose particular or unique difficulties for the reader and the critic. While it may be impossible for the terminally free to fully and completely understand the horrors, both physical and mental, that are visited upon the imprisoned, it is equally clear that the authors of the various works of detention both mean and feel it possible to convey a message from the gaol to those who do not share the experience. Frantz Fanon has written: "I sincerely believe that a subjective experience can be understood by others; and it would give me no pleasure to announce that the black problem is my problem and mine alone and that it is up to me to study it."(2) It would not be a misreading to extend such liberty, such a possibility for both intellectual and emotive understanding to a whole panorama of experience, including that of detention.
There are a number of problems and difficulties for the writer in prison that, though perhaps not unique to the imprisoned, are peculiarly focused in such an experience. There is the obvious loneliness and sense of being cut off from a community, a feeling common to prisoners of all types and backgrounds, whether kept in the general population, segregated or in solitary confinement. There are the logistical and often political problems of getting and being allowed to keep, or being deprived of, writing materials. And if we see the debate surrounding the question of the audience for African literature to be a contentious one in the field in general, think how much more problematic it becomes when it is a veritable certainty that the first and perhaps only audience will be the prison authorities. Does the mortification of the body and harrowing of the mind experienced within the prison effect how one writes? And if one writes as a means of keeping balance, how does this shape the act of writing and the final product? In other words, how does imprisonment, especially a detention that is based on one's very status as a writer, reshape the creative process? Are there ways in which the detained approach the material at hand, their condition and history, that make the works artistically compelling? Is there room for such considerations in the gaol?
It is with these questions in mind that any meaningful consideration of the literature of detention should proceed. But these are general concerns that are more intuitive than springing from any particular text, texts that often prove much more complicated and compelling than any seemingly disinterested consideration of them as a genre of some sort. In looking at two of these works - Wole Soyinka's The Man Died (1972) and Breyten Breytenbach's The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1985) - as artistic productions which operate at any number of significant levels we will be looking not just at how these works reflect an artistic temperament but the much more expansive question of how these works, in their composition and presentation, theme and form, can be seen as shaping and reshaping our conceptions of art and its place in contemporary and often troubled societies. To achieve this end, or rather, to begin to address and flesh out these matters, the works will be approached through the theories and critical practice of Frantz Fanon, the Martinican psychiatrist cum Algerian revolutionary of the mid-twentieth century, and Walter Pater, the dandyish Oxford don and art critic of mid to late nineteenth century England.
The seeming dissimilarity of these four individuals and their various works are what makes their juxtaposition so intriguing and, it is hoped, critically fruitful. It also betrays an underlying suspicion that despite the quite obvious biographical differences, they might each contribute a significant and meaningful piece to our investigation.
The critical consideration of Soyinka's and Breytenbach's works, and of the literature of detention in general (at least in regards to that emerging from African countries), has been of two types. On first being published these works often garner a great deal of attention, especially if the author is particularly "newsworthy." While many reviewers comment upon the style and literary merit, or lack thereof, of the works, such considerations are often secondary to the predicament of the writer. Subsequent critical consideration, and there is precious little, especially concerning Soyinka's volume, has been typological, considering the work as part of a trend or historically determined type, i.e. South African prison poetry or literature of the Nigerian civil war. Such considerations are important and cannot be dismissed out of hand, of greater concern to this particular project are the ways in which these particular individuals - individuals who, by vocation rather than by exception, write - deal with and integrate the horrors of the cell into their lives and work. There seems nothing more individual than the composition of lines of prose or poetry in solitary confinement; whether scratched into the wall or typed out onto A4 sheets, one can imagine few things more contingent on an individual's distinctive personality, sometimes maddeningly so. Even the wider-ranging book-length comparative studies of prison literature(3) tend to organize and analyze these works as representatives of a type while smaller, more limited studies, tend to focus on a study of comparative injustice and brutality rather than a consideration of the merits and peculiarities of the text. It is relatively easy to dismiss these stories with the assertion that "[p]olitical prison memoirs tend to be the same the world over, a litany of tedium, torture, jailers both sadistic and sympathetic, and much legitimate outrage"(4) although such a limited reading is often as much the fault of the critics refusal to longer at and deeper within the text.
Left unaddressed are the larger questions of the role and process of writing within the prison and what that can tell us about the place of literature in the wider world and within the consciousness of the creative artist: it is in the extreme situations that facets of the individual artist and the creative process in general are often laid bare. To give critical attention to these larger issues of the role of the artistic process and creative consciousness within the prison walls is the purpose of this attempt at reading the chronicles of a Nigerian detained for being a continual and present irritant to the military regime in the midst of a civil war and an Afrikaner who sneaks back into South Africa after 17 years of ambivalent exile, laying the foundations of a whites-oriented arm of the anti-apartheid movement.
The differences in these two authors' backgrounds and the vastly different conditions of their detentions are stark and need to be considered in looking at the two works. But equally intriguing, perhaps more so, is the fact that these two men relied on writing, after a fashion, to survive their detention. Both men's minds took flight, sometimes into dreamscapes, sometimes into nightmares and sometimes into an even more chilling limbo, and we are witness to it all through their writings. As we approach these texts, perhaps by dint of the location of the experience, we are made even more aware of the differences and even barriers that stand between the act of writing and our own (or even the author's own subsequent) reading of the work.
Yet a consideration of these texts in a manufactured or presumed critical vacuum is self-deceiving at best and a typological comparison of only two works would lend little to that particular path of inquiry. Rather, the most exciting approach is to confront these texts with the questions raised by the critical writings of others, not necessarily related to or even aware of Soyinka's or Breytenbach's works or environment. In this regard, Frantz Fanon seems a natural choice with his extended discussion of and focus on the alienation of the individual and whole communities and the remaking of these same entities through a virulent and violently oppressive system and subsequent reaction against that system. It would be difficult to imagine a paradigm more suited to the problems of political detention.
Pairing Fanon with Walter Pater, who is thought of by many as the father of critical modernism and is perhaps best and somewhat mistakenly remembered as midwife to the idea of "art for art's sake," may seem incongruous and more indicative of a personal a affectation than a serious critical tool. But if we are to question the relevance of Pater, which is more than justified, so too must we question the continued relevance of Fanon, who, despite what one critic has termed Fanon's "postmodern voguishness,"(5) is in many respects equally out of date. The historical moment out of which Fanon emerged and from which he wrote and thought is long gone, as is Pater's. But the questions they raised have no more been answered by critics than by History. Pater provides us with a concept of art that struggles to transcend explicit, clearly enunciated and "reasonable" definition. Pater's is an art that springs from the individual to touch another, if only one other, individual. Pater's is, perhaps, one type, the most basic type, of connection that Soyinka and Breytenbach are struggling to make.
Fanon and Pater both provide rather amorphous, vaguely defined approaches to the artistic moment rather than a specific way of reading any particular text. Pater, as the first prominent advocate of what came to be know as subjective or impressionistic criticism provides many examples but little direction, while Fanon, characteristic of much of his writing, speaks in sweeping terms of culture and art but does little in the way of defining such terms or explicating how his grand theory can be put to a specific interpretive task. As Pater writes, "the very perfection of such poetry often appears to depend, in part, on a certain suppression or vagueness of mere subject, so that meaning reaches us through ways not distinctly traceable by the understanding."(6) It is, to be sure, a devilish critical position to be in.
It is when we set these works, both critical and literary, in dialogue with one another that we can begin to tease out the intricacies of the literature as well as the often forgotten or overlooked intricacies of the ideas that these authors present. The rather amorphous nature of the theories of Pater and Fanon has allowed subsequent critics and writers to read and reshape their theories at will. The project at hand is as much about trying to understand better what Fanon and Pater put forward, using the writings of Breytenbach and Soyinka, as it is about trying to better grasp the upheavals of detention and how the act of writing is accommodated. Life in prison stands in stark contrast to the rather detached and privileged, some have said effete and slight, notions that Pater forwards. His strongest champion, Oscar Wilde, who both carried on and to some extent warped Pater's legacy, spent time in prison yet saw no reason to abandon Pater's conception of art. Breytenbach, the white Afrikaner with his radically destabilized notions of self and identity, is in many respects the mirror of Fanon, who similarly sought a wholeness that he found lacking in a world perversely and mistakenly divided between black and white. This uncertainty stands in stark contrast to Pater, who mustered a self-assuredness that in our post-modern age is most disconcerting and more intriguing when we consider that he plays with the very tools that have proven so shattering in the hands of contemporary theorists. We could dismiss his certainty as the privilege of a white, upper middle-class academic of the Victorian era if we did not see a similar self-assuredness manifested in Soyinka's chronicle.
The first step to take is to establish a set of core principles from both Fanon and Pater that will be useful in a critical reading of literary works and true to the thinkers' own critical positions. Essentially, it is an attempt to discover the more rigid framework that underlies their ideas and in some sense abandoning the soft, malleable exoskeleton of their rhetoric - a critical approach similar to that of the detained. Once these core principles are established they will be used as both a tool for framing a reading of Soyinka's and Breytenbach's prison memoirs and their experiences of detention and these principles will themselves be subject to a critique by the extreme nature of the prison environment. How well do standard conceptions of art and artistic process, as laid out by Fanon and Pater, hold up under political detention? How much are they relied upon by practicing writers/artists?
Through a close reading of Soyinka's and Breytenbach's prison notes as well as other texts by these same authors and select critical works of Pater - notably Appreciations with an Essay on Style (1889) and The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1893) - and Fanon - Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961) - we will begin to sketch out the myriad connections and questions raised by these works. Less a definitive presentation of how to read, either the literature of detention or the critical enterprise, this is much more a case study of how the tools provided by critical endeavors too frequently forgotten, dismissed or pillaged for the powerful quote can be applied to works so little considered. It is in the collision of multiple interests, ideas and beliefs that the most invigorating, chilling, heartening, disillusioning, sustaining and sometimes even liberating visions are to be had.
1. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1968): 223.
2. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1982): 86.
3. See, for example: Ioan Davies, Writers in Prison (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1990); H. Bruce Franklin, Prison Literature in America: The Victim as Criminal and Artist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); and Kate Millet, The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994).
4. "Songs of Experience," The Economist 296.7407 (1985): 71.
5. Simon Gikandi, "In the Shadow of Hegel: Cultural Theory in an Age of Displacement," Research in African Literatures 27.2 (1996): 148.
6. Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980): 108.
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