Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Space, Time, Solitude: The Liberating Contradictions of Ruth First's 117 Days

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Space, Time, Solitude: The Liberating Contradictions of Ruth First's 117 Days

Article excerpt

Introduction: "An Arena of Struggle"1

RUTH FIRST WAS DETAINED IN THE MARSHALL SQUARE POLICE STATION in Johannesburg under South Africa's Ninety-Day Detention Act, in 1963, during the time of the Rivonia Trial of Nelson Mandela and other members of the outlawed African National Congress. This essay revisits her prison memoir, 117 Days: An Account of Confinement and Interrogation under the South African Ninety-Day Detention Law,2 originally published in 1965. Like Yvonne Vera, Werner Sedlak, Susan Nuttall, Susan VanZanten Gallagher and others, I read 117 Days as an instance of what Barbara Harlow has called "the literature of resistance." As Harlow points out, such literature presents itself as "an arena of struggle." Testifying to this struggle, autobiographical prison writings like 117 Days at once embody and express dislocations between general and particular inscriptions of loyalty and treason, between state terror and the deeply held convictions of the political dissident. Here, however, in an effort to understand how incarceration can so often come to represent freedom, I want to trace more carefully the contradictory character of 117 Days, specifically the contradictions of space, time, and solitude.

Contradictions of Space

Werner Sedlak has argued that First's 117 Days embodies what Henri Lefebvre calls "contradictory space": i.e. "the prison becomes a 'space inbetween' - here, between domination and appropriation."3 Political detainees are rarely prepared for the conditions of the prison cell. The opening paragraphs of 117 Days convey such an impression in the starkest terms:

Yet, not an hour after I was lodged in the cell, I found myself forced to do what storybook prisoners do: pace the length and breadth of the cell. The bed took up almost the entire length of the cell, and in the space remaining between it and the wall was a small protruding shelf. I could not walk round the cell, I could not even cross it. To measure its eight feet by six, I had to walk the length alongside the bed and the shelf, and then, holding my shoes in my hand, crawl under the bed to measure out the breadth. It seemed important to be accurate. (10)

Here we find a record of literal reckoning, a measuring-out and mapping of physical restrictions, a surveying and staking of territorial claims. The clichéd banality of what First calls the "storybook" character of this description testifies all the more acutely to the immediate unreality of incarceration.

At one point in 117 Days, First tells us that she had been arrested before, in 1956. "But the geography of the station," she writes, "was still bewildering" (13). And yet, the very centre of this confinement furnishes First with a kind of sanctuary:

Yet the bed was my privacy, my retreat, and could be my secret life. On the bed I felt in control of the cell. I did not need to survey it; I could ignore it, and concentrate on making myself comfortable. I would sleep as long as I liked, without fear of interruption. I would think, without diversion. I would wait to see what happened, from the comfort of my bed. (9)

Finding her physical bearings in this way helps First to create inner spaces within which to formulate strategies of resistance to the interrogation which lay ahead. In the interplay between these locations lies the contradiction of prison space. Often, the political prisoner loses sight of the line between life and death, which shifts and blurs under the pressures of confinement. "Isolation in a Vacuum," the title of a chapter in 117 Days, captures this sense of undifferentiated space, while the final chapter of First's memoir, "No Place for You," threatens to obliterate all location and includes a description of her suicide attempt (60, 131). If, as loan Davies has asserted in a study of writers in prison, Gaston Bachelard' s "habitable spaces of the poetic image are spaces that attract, spaces that have been lived in 'with all the partiality of the imagination'," the prison writer's experience of space, "is of a different order. …

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