MLA: Behind bars, then out in the cold

December 15, 2000

Malawian poet Jack Mapanje is writing his account of the three and a half years in prison that blighted a promising career. Chris Bunting met him in York

When Jack Mapanje was arrested by the Malawian secret police, they asked him what crime he had committed. It was not a rhetorical question or an interrogators' ruse. They genuinely wanted to know what he might have done wrong.

"There was a huge oval table. At the head of it was the inspector general of police and the rest of the table was filled with the chief commissioners of police from the whole country. I sat in the corner and the inspector general said: 'Dr Mapanje, His Excellency the Life President has directed me today to detain you. Because this is His Excellency's directive, I am afraid to tell you that we are not going to investigate your case because it would look like we were not trusting the higher authorities.

"'But, because we are not investigating, I brought these commissioners here to tell me what it is that you have done, to find out whether you are in our books. They all tell me that they don't know of you. So, we thought, before we take you to where His Excellency wants you to be, we should ask you: first of all, who you are, and, secondly, why do you think we should arrest you?'" Mapanje, a man who alternates between seriousness and hilarity at high speed, breaks out with a huge belly laugh: "It was madness, more Kafka than you could ever think of. He was actually asking his prisoner why he should be detained. I didn't say anything, I couldn't say anything. The man was so embarrassed he didn't know what to do."

That bizarre, stilted episode on September 25 1987 was the turning point in Mapanje's life. On the orders of Dr Hastings Banda, the then dictator of Malawi, and without charge or trial, one of Africa's most exciting young poets and promising academics spent the next three years, seven months, 16 days and 12 hours under a brutal prison regime that he finds difficult to describe.

Now living in a small semi on the outskirts of York, he is writing an account of the time he spent in Mikuyu Maximum Detention Centre. "I need to get these memories out, because they are becoming a block to other writing. But it is not going to be a full-blown prison memoir. It is just going to pick out some of the events that may have affected our lives. I want to avoid inflicting too much pain on people and inflicting too much pain on myself," Mapanje says.

As an afterthought, he adds: "One of the things you notice when you read prison writing is that hardly anybody describes the life in prison. If you look very carefully, you might find one or two who do, but for many it is too horrifying." He pauses and says in a tone of academic interest:

"Another thing you notice is many of them kill themselves."

In two books of poems published since his release in 1991, The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison and Skipping without Ropes, Mapanje has given us some insight into the nature of his experience. The poetry is often charged with humour and positive testaments to humanity, but images of unexplained killings of inmates, of food riddled with maggots and cells infested with scorpions and "blood-bloated mosquitoes" confront the reader. Mapanje was suffering from fortnightly bouts of malaria (without proper medical attention) when he was finally released from his "stinking three and a half years" to find that his mother had died two months previously.

This kind of trauma is relatively easy for the outsider to visualise, if not to understand. But Mapanje describes his imprisonment as a turning point in his life in another sense. "This is the tragedy about my little life, if you like. They imprisoned me because I was too successful, too prominent. I eventually got out of prison because I had friends abroad and there had been a huge outcry at my detention. But, in a sense, the people who imprisoned me succeeded. They stopped my career in mid-track," he says.

Mapanje's rise had been meteoric. From a poor village in southern Malawi, his father left his family when he was still in the womb. His mother had to convert him from Anglicanism to Catholicism to get him into a school and brew millet beer to support him there. He turned out to be a star pupil. After studying at Malawi University and at London's Institute of Education, he published a collection of poems, Of Chameleons and Gods, brimming with sardonic lyricism and barely disguised aggression against the stupidities of the Malawian regime. The book later won the Rotterdam International Poetry Award. The world started to take notice of Mapanje. While taking his PhD at University College London, he co-edited books on African contemporary poetry and African oral poetry and began to be broadcast on the BBC World Service as one of the judges of its poetry prize for Africa.

The Young Turk returned to Malawi University and became head of its linguistics department at the age of 39. He quickly started putting it on the map, helping to set up and becoming chairman of a linguistics association for sub-Saharan African universities shortly after taking up his post. He was made African chairman of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and a steady flow of invitations to international conferences followed.

"It was all mapped out. I was an ambitious scholar, I was a bright young man from an English University. I was going to become a professor," Mapanje says before letting out one of his trademark belly laughs.

Now aged 55, Mapanje is struggling to get "snippets of jobs" in British academia. Having lost what should have been some of his most productive years in Mikuyu prison, he went into exile in England in 1991, and has spent the past decade on temporary contracts, doing a little academic teaching but a lot of creative and other writing classes. He is currently spending his time helping British students with basic essay technique as part of a temporary fellowship as an academic writer in residence with the Royal Literary Fund. ("Some of them don't even know what a paragraph is, my friend!") "It is extremely frustrating, but there is nothing I can do. I am really grateful to the Royal Literary Fund to have given me this work for two years now. But I would like to contribute more to education, I really want to, and I don't know how I can do it. I have applied left, right and centre."

While Mapanje stresses his gratitude for the international support he received while in prison, which he believes may have saved his life, he appears to have been shocked by the lack of sustained interest among British academics in the ideas he brought out of Malawi and his prison experience.

Shortly after he arrived in England in 1993, he began teaching part time at Leeds University and there, along with courses on African and Caribbean oral literature and creative writing, developed a highly successful course on "the literature of incarceration". In 1996, he was a casualty of government funding cuts and since then has been, in his words, "out in the cold". He has watched a surge of interest in prison writing in the United States and was recently approached by publishers Heinemann about a book on the subject, but the British academic establishment has generally maintained a stony face.

"I have been told that what I should have done was stay in England for one year and then go to America, if only because they are much more experimental in their education system than they are here," he says. "Some of the people who have refused me have been genuine, some have not wanted an African, some haven't wanted me because of my age, but others didn't want anybody who had lots of ideas that maybe didn't fit into their structures."

Mapanje's literature of incarceration course, which ran for only one year at Leeds, was massively oversubscribed. "The students loved it. I think the reason for that was this: for the majority of them, literature study on many courses becomes a matching game. They know their Foucault and they know their Bakhtin and they just apply it to the text, matching specific theoretical terms to specific incidents. As far as I am concerned, there is no thinking and there is hardly any real reading of the original text," he says.

"For the literature of incarceration, that doesn't work. There just isn't a body of theory and it isn't canonical, so they have to read texts - from Wilde to Primo Levi - that are insisting on what literature is about: restoring dignity to and recording the stories, not just of themselves, but of a wider community of people who can't tell their stories. It is not all feminism or post-colonialism (everything is post-colonial now). That kind of course is very challenging to some people."

And then, perhaps because he thinks he is becoming a little too challenging, Mapanje lets out another soaring laugh: "Sometimes I wonder whether this is what I am here for. Wherever I go, people are saying I am the rebel. I had someone ring me up last week to ask me to a human rights conference. He says: 'Can you come... we understand you are going to give us the radical view.' I thought: is this the role I always must play?"

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