Narrating Prison Experience

Narrating prison experience front cover

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Most prison narratives seem, on the surface, to be personal life histories in which incarcerated individuals narrate themselves into existence in a desperate attempt to reclaim their selfhood and sense of humanity. But a close reading of these narratives indicates that prison literature is a frame through which we can read a country’s history, a tool with which we can feel its national pulse. While pre-colonial oral narratives of incarceration may be appropriated to allegorize the colonial and postcolonial realities of Kenyan peoples, the colonial and postcolonial narratives tend to cannibalize the state. These narratives of confinement lend themselves towards rumination on the double function of the state as a “source of security” and as an “agent of destruction and death,” as Simon Gikandi put it, albeit in a different context. Narrating Prison Experience is an astute and brilliant assessment of the relationship between the tradition of African letters and the preponderance of state tyranny. Characterized by conceptual depth, elegance, gravity, and clarity, this timely and unique text brings into sharp relief instances of the prison writing of political prisoners in Africa in the colonial and post-independence periods. It not only conceives of these unofficial and unauthorized narratives as credible evidence of state violation of human rights, but also compellingly strips them of the tag of “criminality.” The narrative of these tales of torture and trauma is informed by firsthand experience. In other words, narrating prison experience becomes synonymous with presentation of testimonies by individuals who at once witnessed and/or experienced atrocities. This penetrating study rests on a literary¬–critical perspective that draws upon many and varied disciplines with the objective of uncovering the interplay between self-narration and incarceration and the bigger question of human rights abuses. Using prison narratives from Kenya as its focal point, the book judiciously demonstrates how writing for political prisoners constitutes reaffirmation of self and nation.