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Growth And Development Of Prison Literature

By Nelda Powers
Prison literature has been defined as writing by authors who are confined against their own will. Confinement comes in different forms including house arrests, ordinary jails or real prisons. Prisoners have used their time behind bars to produce incredible memoirs, fiction, non-fiction, essays, plays and articles to the press. A broader view is work where the author is imprisoned, writing about his experiences or whose writing is inspired by life behind bars.

The earliest work by a prisoner was done by Boethius and was titled Consolation of Philosophy. It was written in 524 AD. It opened a genre of writing that has continued to grow over the years. Other writers have followed his footsteps including notable personalities like Martin Luther and Napoleon Bonaparte. Luther produced the German translation of the New Testament while under arrest. Bonaparte dictated his memoirs in the same condition. They became best sellers later in the nineteenth century.

Fyodor Dostoevsky is one of the authors whose writing was informed by imprisonment. His four years in Siberia for joining an intellectual movement had significant impact on his writing career. He began arguing against socialist and nihilist points of view. His trademark themes were humility and suffering that were advocated at the time. This made his writing very complex and dark.

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.

Amazing books have been written about experiences behind bars. They include the works by Ngugi wa Thiongo which he called Detained A Prisoners Diary. This book was released in 1981. Kalakuta Republic was written by a Nigerian author by the name Ambani Chris. It captures his accounts when he was imprisoned. Women writers have included Beatrice Saubin from Malysia, Bedell Precious from New York, Joan Henry writing from England, Nawal El Saadawi from Egypt, Madam Roland who wrote from Paris and Krystyna Wituska who came from Berlin.

Part of the writing that takes place in prisons is meant to pass time. Intellectuals who are imprisoned want to engage their minds. Organizations have supported prisoners to write by providing them with materials and publishing them. The aim is to offer them room for expression. Writers have used this kind of writing to fuel revolutions and keep alive debates over national issues.

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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