Exploring Prison Literature

There are innumerable classical texts produced by writers while serving imprisonment across different cultures, written in different languages of the world ranging from Arabic, English, Urdu, Persian, French, German, and other major and minor languages of the world.  We call it prison literature.

The incarceration of writers includes different reasons like religious, political, and social. A large body of literature comprising novels, autobiographies, letters, poetry, historical documents, essay, journalism, diaries, philosophical writings, and notes have been written behind the fortress like walls. The main reason for a writer to be arrested and put behind the bars is to silence him/her and control the thought.

Different writers/poets/philosophers and literary-giants when incarcerated, thought of making life meaningful behind the bars. Confinement, the darkness behind the bars, devoid of all basic needs, no reading and writing material, yet it could not deter them to jot down the ideas and feelings. No doubt there are some writers for whom prison worked as a laboratory, but there are indeed a greater number of writers who were already acclaimed before incarceration.

Critical issues relating to prison literature include how the writers represent their sufferings, experiences, and emotions during incarceration; their strategies of survival, and how prison literature reveals hidden violations of human rights while resisting official discourse and serving other functions in society.

When these great literary gems are incarcerated, all the outside communication is barred, they are not allowed to read and write. No book, magazine, or newspaper is allowed inside the prison cells. Denied of pen and paper imprisoned writer tries to break these high prison walls and iron gates with the will to never surrender. Faiz Aḥmed Faiz, one of the most prominent Urdu poets, when put in solitary confinement proclaimed:

What if my pen and paper have been snatched away from me?

I have dipped my fingers into my heart’s blood

What if my lips are sealed,

I have lent my tongue to each link in the chain

Boethius has written a classic philosophical tract Consolation of Philosophy while serving his prison term, awaiting his execution. Some of the notable writers, who were arrested and incarcerated by different regimes include John Bunyan, Antonia Gramsci, Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ezra pond, Nawal El-Saadawi, Wole Soyinka, Chekov, Tolstoy, Denial Dafoe, and Abul Kalam Azad and many more. Some of the outstanding poets, who were prisoners of conscience include Richard Lovelace, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mahmoud Darwish, Nazim Hikmet, and Ahmed Fouad Negm, etc. Their voice is still resonating though they died long back. Richard Lovelace when imprisoned in 1642 wrote behind the walls:

Stone Walls don’t prison make

Nor Iron bars a cage,

Minds innocent and quiet take

That for a hermitage.

Prison Literature, documents the harrowing experiences inside those dark cells. Denied of the basic amenities a writer is forced to live in four by six cells, where they cannot even stretch properly. Moreover, does incarceration mute them, or add to their strength? Does it break their commitment to the cause or make them more committed. James Joyce once said of such writers, “squeeze us, we are olives”. And here in prison cells where writers were squeezed to yield their best.

The prison literature has inspired a generation of readers across the world, and now it has been hailed as a genre of literature worthy of investigation, study, and research. Reading this genre we realize the great ideas coming from the most deep-thinking and creative personalities.

From the writings of almost all incarcerated writers, a voice is emerging thorough the silences of dark jail cells, which is the loudest sound. Reading prison literature explores the issues of authority, providence resistance, witness, trauma, healing, remembrance, cathartic, grief, inspiration, nostalgia, stigma, separation, belonging, otherness, hope, etc.

The main motive to imprison a writer is to colonize the mind. When the mind is colonized,  everything is lost. To write is to resist this design and to subvert it. Whether the writer is a prisoner of conscience or prisoner of war, a victim of bigotry, or the victim of religious dissent, though physically caged he remains a free person spiritually and intellectually. This freedom of soul and mind results in the most profound works.

Ahsan ul Haq  author is a doctoral fellow at the department of english, University of Kashmir