Magazine article New Internationalist

Jack Mapanje

Magazine article New Internationalist

Jack Mapanje

Article excerpt

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. …

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