By Martin Banham (University of Leeds)
And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night. A Memoir. Jack Mapanje. Ayebia Clarke Publishing, Banbury, 2011. Pp. 435. ISBN. 978 0 9562401 7 0 (pb). £12.99.
J P Clark. A Voyage. Femi Osofisan. Bookcraft, Ibadan, Nigeria, 2011. Pp. 286. ISBN. 978 978 8135 70 8 (pb). £N3,500.
The Dennis Brutus Tapes. Essays at Autobiography. Bernth Lindfors (Ed.). James Currey/Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2011. Pp. 216. ISBN. 978 1 84701 034 6 (hb). £40.
It is sobering that the prison memoir is one of the most consistent products of contemporary African writers. In 1987 the Malawian poet and scholar Jack Mapanje, then teaching at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi, was arrested and imprisoned without charge – an incarceration that was to last for three and a half years. This experience has been chronicled in Mapanje’s poetry (see, for instance, The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison, in Heinemann’s African Writing Series) and in the same series Mapanje edited Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing gathering together material from everyone from Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, to Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Now Mapanje’s own long-awaited memoir is published – ‘A chronicle of a poet’s imprisonment under life president Banda of Malawi’. When Mapanje was released from prison, he and his family left Malawi, and he has never substantially resettled in his home country. The gestation of this memoir is remarkable. The years of imprisonment are recorded in intimate detail, conversations, activities, personalities, in a manner that would suggest that the writer was keeping a daily written chronicle – which, of course, he had no means or possibility of doing. In fact Mapanje reconstructed those traumatic days, from a certain necessary distance in time, and via recreating the experience in question and answer sessions with students and colleagues in the UK, the Netherlands, and Ireland, rebuilding the awful memory. An impressive quality of the memoir is Mapanje’s resolute optimism, making the smallest incidents vehicles of hope rather than despair. Beyond the suffering of Banda’s political prisoners recorded here, Mapanje shows the awful paranoia created by his dictatorship, with police, academics and civil servants terrified of being thought to be disloyal to ‘his excellency, the life president, the Ngwazi Dr H Kamuzu Banda’. Mapanje, in a bizarre episode, notes that even his presence at a gathering of linguistics scholars in Harare, was regarded as being potentially subversive.
To welcome prison memoirs seems perverse. But Mapanje’s should be read by all who believe in the power of the human spirit to overcome evil.
Femi Osofisan‘s biography of the Nigerian poet/playwright/academic J.P. Clark (John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, in full) is greatly to be welcomed. It is fitting that Osofisan – Nigeria’s leading playwright of the ‘second’ generation after Clark, Soyinka and Rotimi – should celebrate the work of one of the great pioneering spirits of Nigerian arts. Clark’s work has been anthologised and contextualised elsewhere – specifically in the Howard University Press collection of his poems and plays, with their detailed and informative introduction by Abiola Irele (1991) and the same press’s edition of Clark’s The Ozidi Saga with its introduction by Isidore Okpewho (1991). Clark himself has offered the beginnings of an autobiography in poetry – the collection Once Again A Child (Mosoru Publishers, Ibadan, 2004). But Osofisan has created a portrait of Clark that locates him as much culturally as historically, from his early student days, through his academic and literary career, to his roots in the Delta State community of Kiagbodo. Accompanied by his colleague Professor Olu Obafemi, Osofisan travels critically and personally through Clark’s life and work, in a wonderfully readable and intimate, yet critically astute biography. Usefully illustrated, and deeply well-informed, this is a splendid, honest portrait of a great Nigerian writer. As a bonus, an engaging portrait of Osofisan and Obafemi emerges as they travel together through time and Nigeria in pursuit of their subject!
The South African poet Dennis Brutus spent a period in the mid-1970s at the University of Texas at Austin, during which time he recorded elements of his personal, political and artistic life on to tape. He was fortunate to have as a colleague the indefatigable Bernth Lindfors who, after Brutus’s death, took on the task of editing and publishing the tapes. The result is a vivid and moving portrait of a man who contributed significantly, through his actions and words, to the fight against apartheid. The tapes record elements of both Brutus’s personal and political life, and by the very nature of the way in which they were created, move through elements of Brutus’s life simply as the act of talking brings them to mind. The result is a deeply informative and very personal portrait of both the public and the private man. Lindfors’ editing and introduction have done Brutus’s memory a great service.
Reviewed by: Martin Banham, University of Leeds.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 103-104]