New Internationalist

Jack Mapanje

Issue 441

Jack Mapanje spent three and a half years in a Malawi prison for being a poet. On the eve of the publication of his prison memoirs, he talks to Rowenna Davis about freedom, timeless truths and why he loves the rain.

Keith Pattinson
Keith Pattinson

What’s your earliest memory?

My father left us for South Africa when I was in the womb. He left to work in the mines and sent us money and photos for a while, but after that he disappeared and found a new family. He never returned. This meant I was brought up by my mother, who was a very good storyteller. We’d gather around the fire to hear her stories; the structure of her narratives still influences my poems now. My mum did what I do – pick up little ideas and link them to a bigger picture. The final bit of the story always had a ‘crunch’ – a final line that sums up the meaning of the whole piece.

Did anything good come from your time in prison?

If you decide to write in a dictatorship you have to find safe modes of expression. When I was in prison I continued to write in my head but I couldn’t publish anything because I had nothing to write on! I produced 25 poems in my head and I thought when I got out I’d get some paper and try and write them out. I couldn’t remember them all after three and a half years in prison, but I remembered the titles. So I sat down with the titles and tried to get them back, but I still have two or three that I haven’t recovered yet.

I remembered one recently in Vienna about when my son visited after I’d spent 22 months in prison. Prison had some positive effects on my writing. I had to develop metaphors that were concealed and not obvious and more imaginative. Most expression is surreptitious in a dictatorship; in prison it’s worse.

What are you politically passionate about?

Truth and freedom. The thing I like to hear about is people’s freedom. I’m writing a poem called ‘Egypt going up in flames’. What’s fascinating about Egypt is that it’s the story of ordinary people: workers and students getting together and saying no. Malawi was the same – the people were stifled. In our case, as in Egypt’s, the dictatorship lasted 30 years. Politicians think people are stupid, but when they begin to ask ‘what are we suffering for?’ everyone knows where the fate of politicians lies.

What’s your greatest weakness?

I take a long time to decide to take action; and I don’t talk about my achievements. If I had more confidence I’d be very famous, but I don’t speak out. Everything I need to talk about is in my poems – all my politics and my desires are there. The only problem is that people don’t read them! If they did they would know all about the politics, economics and society of Malawi. But I remember once reading from a holocaust survivor who said when you get out of a concentration camp, the world doesn’t seem interested in your story. I wish I could speak out more beyond my poetry; Malawians don’t speak out as much as they should. Maybe they think they have suffered enough.

So do you wish you had become a politician instead?

I don’t regret that I’m not a politician. I would like to influence them, but I learnt a long time ago that no matter how much advice you give them, they never listen. The politician and the poet are both looking for truth and an audience to convince, but the politician’s truth is rather shallow. The one the writer seeks is timeless.

Where do you feel most at home?

I feel most at home when it’s raining. Not too loud, but when it’s falling slowly: I like to sit and watch it. Back at home in Africa it came when the leaves were green; it’s very peaceful and serene. In the UK I like it when the snowflakes are falling and I’m watching them, maybe with a cup of tea. The world is very rough, and I don’t like it when it gets like that. I like it when it’s gentle and calm and peaceful. It can’t always be like that, but that’s what I like.

Jack Mapanje’s prison memoirs, And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night, will be published in June by Ayebia.

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